If golf’s TV producers haven’t figured it out yet, they will soon: the great amateur events are every bit as interesting, and likely more so, than what the golf played on the PGA Tour week in and week out. I’m not denigrating Tour golf, although at times in the season there is a numbing similarity to it all. I am here to praise amateur golf and its leading events. You know which ones I’m talking about: the USGA events for men, women and juniors; the Walker Cup, coming up next month; the Solheim Cup.
I know, I know: you would like to point out that the Solheim Cup is a women’s event featuring nothing but professional golfers. A technicality. When golf is played only for pride, for status, for bragging rights, it is intrinsically more interesting, and that’s what made the Solheim Cup, completed on Sunday in West Des Moines, so compelling. The Americans beat the Europeans by nearly a touchdown — 16.5 to 11.5 — but the closing singles session was a 6-6 affair. If you were there or watching on TV or even if you saw the (lengthy) highlight reel, you could tell what happened. There were 24 players, 24 caddies and two Hall-of-Fame captains — Annika Sorenstam and Juli Inkster — abroad on the Des Moines Golf and Country Club course and all 50 of them were all in. Anna Nordqvist of Sweden won the first four holes of her match against Lexi Thompson. But by the 18th tee Nordqvist was one down! She then won 18 to halve the match. All that for half a point! I was reminded of what Nick Price said to Ernie Els at a Presidents Cup years ago: “This point may not mean much to you, but it means a f— of a lot to me.” His words motivated Easy appropriately. If you saw the quality of the golf played by Nordqvist and Thompson, they clearly did not need anything like Price’s pep talk to dig deep and find their best golf. As Thompson said, “I have to play all in.” She did. I’m guessing they all did.
And what were they playing for? Professional golfers play golf for money. Nothing wrong with that. But what were these leading American and European women professionals playing for? Personal pride, national pride, team spirit—some corny thing you can’t quite put your finger on. Corny and genuine.
Later on Sunday, and further west, the men’s U.S. Amateur, played at Riviera, was decided in a match that went 37 holes. Can you imagine how even two golfers would have to be to have a match-play competition not decided within the normal allotment of 36 holes?
The match featured two college players. If you follow college golf closely you sure would know the names. I did not. Your protagonists were Doc Redman from Clemson and Doug Ghim from the University of Texas. My wife was rooting for Ghim because she liked his on-course exchanges with his father-caddie. I was rooting for Redman because he hits slices. (Well, hard fades, anyway.) One of the coolest things about the Fox telecast was seeing Curtis Strange, headset on, criss-crossing the fairway behind the players, getting on top of their shots as if he were going to play them himself. Also, knowing that both of these players (in the likely event they are still amateurs come April) will play in the 2018 Masters, where we will get to know them as people and golfers better. Amateur golf is all about the today and tomorrow.
You can’t truly put down stroke-play scores for a match-play match, but allowing for some gimmes, Ghim shot 67 to Redman’s 66 before lunch (to use a phrase from way back when). Redman had a 1-up lead. But after 34 holes, Ghim was 2 up. You know the arithmetic. To win, all he had to do was halve either the 35th hole or the 36th. How hard can that be? Well, when your opponent makes about a 50-footer for eagle on 17 and stiffs his approach shot and makes birdie on 18, pretty damn hard is the answer. Redman won on the 37th hole. Ghim had to be just crushed. He was an absolute model of grace in his post-match interview.
David Fay, the former executive director of the USGA who was at Riviera as part of the Fox broadcast, wrote this is an email: “I know the tendency, soon after watching a riveting athletic event, is to overstate. But, truly, that final was the most remarkable golf match I’ve witnessed, either in person or watching on TV. The putts (long and short), the approach shots (especially the long one), the recovery shots: it was the whole package.”
We’ve all had that feeling, which is why amateur golf resonates with us on a gut level. The other day, in a nine-hole after-work match, I was 1 down through seven holes. I had to make a putt — and I don’t make too many putts — to halve eight and keep the match alive. I did. On nine, I was over the green in two, my ball was 10 feet downhill from the hole but had settled low in deep rough. I made the most unlikely up-and-down for a four and win there I have ever made. Now is that Fay’s post-match excitement talking? Maybe so but that’s how I felt. On to 10 we went.
If a nine-hole match — a great and undervalued golf sprint — that goes 10 holes is exhilarating, imagine what it must have been like to be in the Lauren Stephenson-Chia Yen Wu quarterfinal match earlier this month at the U.S. Women’s Amateur at the San Diego Country Club that went 30 holes? An 18-hole match that needed 12 extra holes to get decided! No USGA match has ever required so many extra holes. Oh, and Stephenson plays for Texas. Chia Yen Wu is 13! And on the 27th hole, with Stephenson less than a yard from the cup, the young girl made a 75-footer that allowed her to halve the hole and keep the match alive. Three holes later, she won it. Like Ghim, Stephenson was a model of grace in defeat (if you can even call that defeat). She said, “It stinks to lose, but at the same time, you’re never going to experience something like that again. And we both played great all day, so you can’t really be too upset about it. That putt, I mean, that’s going to be on TV, and you’re going to see that forever. That was crazy.”
And now comes the Walker Cup, in mid-September, at Los Angeles Country Club, which, since its Gil Hanse makeover, has shades of old Augusta National (when it was so broad) and current Pine Valley (nasty, brilliant bunkering). One of the most enjoyable golf events I ever attended was the 2013 Walker Cup at National Golf Links. The course had a lot to do with it. The course always has a lot to do with. Ten years ago, a stacked U.S. team — Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson — nipped a Great Britain and Ireland team that featured a kid named Rory McIlroy at Royal County Down. Did we know who Rory McIlory and Dustin Johnson were then? I certainly didn’t. The greatness of the event was its closeness, the quality of the golf, the quality of the course, and what the players were playing for. It’s almost impossible to define, but, to borrow from Justice Potter Stewart, you know it when you see it.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at email@example.com.