At an upset-filled U.S. Amateur, could U.S. Open-like conditions be the cause?
PARAMUS, N.J. — Even by the U.S. Amateur’s topsy-turvy standards, things at Ridgewood have been wildly unpredictable.
After two rounds of stroke play and four rounds of match play, the underdogs are overwhelming not only their better-ranked competition but also the whole the tournament. Just one single-digit seed remains from the field of 64, and the cast of characters who have unseated three of the top five amateurs in the world and all but one of the tournament’s presumptive favorites includes the 707th-ranked amateur, the 1,212th-ranked am and a 34-year-old lead tape enthusiast.
Gone are names like Travis Vick, Gordon Sargent and Michael Thorbjornsen — a group widely considered to be “the future” of professional golf — replaced by a group of players who don’t even have a profile headshot available on the on the World Amateur Golf Ranking website.
Yes, the U.S. Amateur is a match-play event, and yes, match play is when golf’s great wheel of meritocracy spins at its fastest. But if this week truly is a meritocracy, why are so many of the so-called better players spending the weekend at home? If the format isn’t the cause, then what is?
There will be no arguing the fact that Ridgewood is a championship test from anyone in the field this week. At a hilly 7,400 yards long and what feels like 20 yards wide, the course is as big and bad as it is nimble and toothy. For this week’s U.S. Amateur, the greens staff narrowed fairways and grew the rough — as high as five inches in some spots — while a drought in the area helped to firm up the already-slick putting surfaces to what at least three players estimated was “a 13 or 14” on the Stimpmeter Thursday.
These would be considered U.S. Open-like conditions, were the conditions at the actual U.S. Open in June not slightly easier, at least on paper. (The Country Club played to just 7,200 yards, and its greens rolled at a 12.5.) All of which raises an important question: In a format already built for chaos, could the course conditions at the U.S. Amateur be benefitting the underdogs?
“I think in some, in some ways, courses like this can play easier than just a super soft course,” offered Alex Price, who made it into the quarterfinal round at the U.S. Am despite ranking 1,212th in the world. “I always like embracing the challenge. I’ve always felt like I played better at the harder courses. I like it not just being a birdie fest out there — having to hit golf shots, put your ball in the right spot. If you know how to use the slopes and know how to play the conditions, I think you’re gonna do just fine.”
Price had no illusions of overpowering Ridgewood. A member of the golf team at Division III Christopher Newport University in Virginia, the ballspeed gap between Price and his 6-foot-8 round of 32 opponent Christo Lamprecht is like the one between the cul de sac outside the Ridgewood clubhouse and the left lane of the Jersey Turnpike. And yet it was Price who moved to 2 up in the pair’s match on the 573-yard 3rd hole, a mammoth par-5 that on many other courses would have played directly to his opponent’s advantage.
On that hole, Lamprecht ignored the primary fairway and aimed his drive for the adjacent one, hoping to chop down the angle and reach the green in two. Instead, he split the two fairways, his ball coming to rest deep in the right rough. Rather than take his medicine, Lamprecht compounded his error, blasting his second shot off one of the large limbs of an oak tree and directly back down into the rough. He would go on to make 6 on the hole, while Price played the par-5 as a three-shotter and made a tidy par.
“I think the way you have to approach that hole, especially in matchplay, you can never put yourself out of the hole — never do something that’s going to just hand the hole your opponent,” Price told me later. “So whatever course of action you can take to ensure that you’re at least going to have a good look at par and probably even a good look at birdie, you have to do it.”
In fact, Price and Lamprecht were the third of three consecutive groups to learn that lesson on Thursday morning. In that stretch, none of the three winning players on the third hole made better than par, and notably, none of the winners played a shot from the rough.
Clean golf is a common theme among those who’ve found success at the U.S. Am, but if there’s one consensus, it’s luck. With conditions as they are, there are many ways to decide one’s own destiny at Ridgewood, but no way to control it.
“Obviously here, if you’re precise all day hitting fairways, it’d be pretty easy,” Australia’s Hayden Hopewell said. “But you do need a little bit of luck when you miss a fairway, because everyone’s gonna miss a fairway. If you can keep it out of that thick stuff, it makes it a bit easier.”
“You’re gonna have to draw some luck and lies in the rough and missing fairways,” Andrew Von Lossow agreed. “There were a number of times where I couldn’t see my ball in the rough or around the greens. You just have to hit it and pray.”
Von Lossow is perhaps the Amateur’s biggest Cinderella story in 2022. The 34-year-old mid-am and owner of a popular Instagram feed dedicated to lead tape (@leadtapechronicles) flew in for the week from Spokane, Wash., with the long-shot goal of making it into the field’s top 64 players. On Wednesday, he one-upped himself, upsetting Thornbjornsen to earn a bid into the round of 32 before losing on the final hole of Thursday morning’s match to Ben Carr.
Maybe Von Lossow was fortunate to advance as far as he did, but he sure didn’t feel that way walking off the 18th green on Thursday.
“Playing this kind of course, it’s such a grind. Any little shot here it can hit a ridge and roll off the green or something like that,” Von Lossow said. “The lines are so fine. You can’t press but you know you kind of need to. You just have to accept what’s gonna happen.”
Perhaps that’s the true impact of course conditions like the ones at the U.S. Am — not in providing an advantage to any one player, but in making an already-random event way more random. Maybe that means an advantage for the underdogs, or maybe it’s something much simpler.
“It’s just match play,” Price said, sporting a smile as wide as his quarterfinal odds were just five days ago. “Once we’re here, we’re all equal. Once you make the top 64, anything can happen.”