I made a bold statement on Open Golf Radio in 2013. I said we weren’t too far away from an amateur winning a major championship.
Former European Tour pros Robert Lee, Paul Eales and the late Gordon Brand Jr were sceptical. They weren’t so dubious two years later when Ireland’s Paul Dunne became the first amateur to hold or share the lead in the Open since Bobby Jones in 1927. Dunne’s 12-under 204 after scores of 69, 69 and 66 set a record for low 54-hole total by an amateur in the game’s oldest major.
Dunne didn’t win that Open. He didn’t even take the silver medal as low amateur. He returned a closing 78 to finish T30. Jordan Niebrugge took low amateur bragging rights by finishing T6. However, a warning notice had been served to the professional game.
There was no surprise yesterday when unpaid player Davis Thompson jumped into the first round lead at Winged Foot when he reached 4 under through 11 holes. The 21-year-old University of Georgia player couldn’t stay on that mark, bogeying three of his last five holes to shoot 69, 1-under.
Thompson, ranked fourth on the World Amateur Golf Ranking, is tied 14th heading into the second round. So, too, is world number eight John Pak. Both are just four shots off the lead.
Now, I’m not saying Thompson or Pak or any of the other 11 amateurs in the field will win this U.S. Open. However, I wouldn’t be surprised. I feel even stronger about the bold prediction I made seven years: an amateur will win a major in my lifetime.
Any serious golf fan knows Johnny Goodman is the answer to the trivia question: who was the last amateur to win a major? That was in 1933, in the U.S. Open at North Shore Golf Club in Glenview, Illinois.
So why do I think an amateur can win won now when it’s been 87 years since Goodman’s triumph? Because there’s really no such thing as a full-time amateur playing top level golf any more. The days when England’s John Kemp qualified for two Open Championships, 2001 and 2002, while holding down a full-time job are long gone. As Sky Sports commentator Ewan Murray said during yesterday’s broadcast:
“There are so many good young amateurs now. They are almost semi-pros by the time they turn 18.”
The American college system is pretty much a breeding ground for the PGA Tour. It’s where future tour pros go to serve an apprenticeship for the life as a tour pro. The golf unions/association of the world run programs for elite amateurs and send them around the globe for tournament experience, give them coaching and funding to focus solely on just playing golf.
You can bet the likes of Justin Thomas or Rickie Fowler didn’t need part time jobs when they attended the University of Alabama and Oklahoma State respectively. Ditto for Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton when they were in the England A squad.
Equipment companies give elite amateurs free equipment, investing in promising players in the hope they’ll endorse their products once they turn professional. I had a golf club fitting a few years ago with a major manufacturer. In the bay next to me was a young German kid who had flown in for the day for a driver fitting. In just a few hours he was kitted out a with a free driver that was just right for him: with the correct launch angle, spin rate, etc. No leaving things to chance and hunches as in Kemp's day, when he and others like him had to buy their equipment.
The top amateurs are seasoned players by the time they reach the professional level. As two-time European Tour winner turned commentator Wayne Riley said yesterday in response to Murray’s comments:
“They know all about it. They aren’t scared anymore, and they are ready to rock and roll on the tour.”
We’ve seen that recently with the likes of Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff and Victor Hovland. Ditto for players like Fleetwood and Hatton. They've made an almost seamless transition from amateur golf to the professional game.
True, an abundance of talent is required, as well as a steadfast belief, to play at the top levels. Professional golf is the ultimate in Darwin’s survival of the fittest. Today’s top amateurs have the talent and belief to survive and do well in the money game.
I’m not saying we’ll get a Bobby Jones type player who’ll win seven majors. Those were different times. Today’s amateurs breeze so quickly through the amateur ranks because they’re in a hurry to sample from the cash tough of professional golf. However, a truly special player in the mould of, say, Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy, can pull off a major victory in the not too distant future to consign Goodman to the trivia side lines.
You heard it here first.
#JustSaying: “I made $700 for winning my first U.S. Open and $500 for the Open. Today a good, young golfer doesn’t have to be a champion. He gets $150,000 for wearing a logo on his cap or his sleeve.” Gary Player in 1998