At U.S. Amateur, differentiator is what they’re *not* playing for
PARAMUS, N.J. — If on a Tuesday in August you were seeking refuge from the endless chatter in golf circles about defections and dissension and dumbfounding signing bonuses, you could do worse than hop off Exit 163 on the Garden State Parkway and find your way to Ridgewood Country Club, or, to be more precise, The Ridgewood Country Club, as this old-timey (b. 1890) golf citadel is officially known.
As a group of world-class golfers were convening in Delaware to address the pressing threat that the deeply funded, Saudi-backed LIV Series represents to the PGA Tour, another group of world-class golfers — 312 of them! — were grinding away in the stroke-play portion of the U.S. Amateur here in leafy northern New Jersey.
To say the U.S. Amateur contestants — 64 of whom advanced to match play, from which a winner will be crowned Sunday afternoon — were playing for nothing would, of course, be misleading. Plenty was on the line: the esteemed Havemeyer Trophy, a gold medal and invitations to three of the four majors in 2023.
To the victor, other spoils also go. Ask James Piot, who won this championship just a year ago and now has a LIV deal that has given him entrée to $25 million purses that he surely never could have dreamed of when he was leading Detroit Catholic Central to three straight Division 1 Michigan High School Championships from 2015-17.
And yet in another sense — the monetary kind — the guys this week are playing for nothing. No purse. No checks. Not even a Calcutta. (Well, none that we know of, anyway.)
Isn’t it refreshing?
Don’t answer that. Rhetorical question!
As LIV has begun plucking players from the PGA Tour like pears off a tree, it has become almost impossible to discuss high-level golf without mentioning money. Did you hear what they offered Tiger? How much do you think DJ got? What about Bryson? And then there’s the stuff we actually know: LIV’s $4 million first-place prizes. The $750,000-per-player bonuses for team wins. The PGA Tour’s rebuttal, in the form of an additional $54 million it has injected into eight of its biggest events beginning next season. The $2 billion LIV has reportedly doled out in contracts. That’s more than the GDP of Belize.
It’s dizzying, right? So, for a day or two, let us breathe! Golf for golf’s sake!
And what a glorious day for golf Tuesday was: warm, yes, but also breezy, with the field split between Ridgewood and its underrated neighbor, Arcola Country Club (b. 1909).
Shuttle busses transported spectators between the two properties, though most onlookers seemed to stick to one course or the other, largely because in the early rounds of the Amateur, fans tend to stick to one group or the other. And by fans, we mean parents, siblings, friends and coaches. There aren’t too many others out there, which means if you want to watch elite golfing talent up close — like, you-can-peer-in-their-bags close — this tournament is tough to beat. The next Scottie Scheffler, Rahmbo and Will Z.? There’s a decent chance they’re in this field.
Same goes for the next Brandt Snedeker. If not, would you settle for his big brother? Haymes Snedeker opened with a rocky 83 but managed six better on Tuesday.
Your eclectic pack of co-medalists, at three under, after two challenging days of racecar-fast greens and five-inch rough: Fred Biondi (by way of Brazil); Hugo Towsend (an Irish-born resident of Sweden); Luke Gutschewski (whose father, Scott, is a Korn Ferry Tour winner); and Michael Thorbjornsen (Stanford star and 2018 U.S. Junior Am champ).
Thorbjornsen, who’s playing in his fifth Amateur and earlier this year finished fourth at the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship, looked primed to be the solo medalist until he fatted a fairway bunker shot on Arcola’s par-4 18th.
Did the resulting double-bogey gnaw at him?
“Kind of just more disappointed in myself for just doubling the last hole, whether it’s for nothing or for the whole tournament to win the U.S. Amateur or win medalist or whatever,” he said. “I just don’t like playing bad golf.”
Bad golf, LOL. Over two rounds off U.S. Open-grade conditions, Thorbjornsen made eight birdies — and that was with what he described as “unacceptable” driving.
It was a head-splitting slog, and the field played like it. Late in the afternoon, an exasperated rules official parked by Ridgewood’s 18th fairway announced that the group coming up the hole was 18 minutes off pace. “And they’re not even on the green yet,” he sniffed.
“What time does it get it dark these days?” he added, clearly worried that the field wouldn’t finish.
They did — well, the regulation holes, anyway. At 7:30 Wednesday morning, the 15 players who are tied at five over will compete in a playoff for 11 available match-play spots. Chaos! The best kind!
If all parts of your game need to be clicking in stroke play, that’s not always the case in match play, where the only score that matters is yours against your opponent’s. Pars beat bogeys. Bogeys best doubles. And so on.
Gutschewski is making his Amateur debut but has picked up plenty of match-play wisdom from his father, Scott, who is playing this season on the PGA Tour. In particular, Luke called out his old man’s patience and “even-keeledness,” adding, “You never know if he’s seven under or seven over when he plays. He keeps the same patience and manner all the time. I think in match play that would be really important. No reason to get too up or too down, just kind of stay the course.”
Indeed, with seven matches standing between the winner and the trophy, the course will be almost literally the only place to stay this week.
And the players know it.
As dusk approached Tuesday evening by the Ridgewood clubhouse, the practice green was still buzzing. Circling the putting surface was a small army of stand bags emblazoned with college names from all over the country: Oregon, Baylor, Indiana, Drexel, plus one homer: Seton Hall, which is a just half-hour drive south of Ridgewood.
Just off the green a local caddie counseled a player who had not survived stroke play. Still, the kid had much to look forward to: He was on his way to play at the University of Texas.
“Don’t do anything stupid in Austin,” the looper said. “I’m sure they’ll keep the reins on you.”
The golfer walked away. His future awaited.