Will Zalatoris’s runner-up in the Masters was touted as part of the youth movement taking over golf, despite the recent success of near 50 somethings Lee Westwood and Stewart Cink. Zalatoris, Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff, Cameron Champ, Viktor Høvland, Scottie Scheffler and others have made seamless transitions from the college ranks to the PGA Tour. Many are asking why.
I think I have the answer.
A look at the LPGA Tour also shows no end of recent college/amateur players excelling on the world’s best women’s circuit. Players like Korda sisters Nelly and Jessica (pictured), Lydia Ko, Jennifer Kupcho, Maria Fassi and more. Not just ex-college players and amateurs but current ones, too. Think of the impact amateurs Linn Grant, Ingrid Lindblad, Maja Stark, Gabriela Ruffels, and Pauline Rossin-Bouchard had in last year’s U.S. Women’s Open.
It’s not just on the PGA Tour and LPGA circuit youngsters are making an impact. Matt Fitzpatrick made an effortless jump from the amateur game to the European Tour. Ditto for Bob MacIntyre, Rasmus Højgaard, Sam Horsfield, Mathias Schwab and others.
South African amateur Caitlyn Macnab has just won the Jabra Ladies Classic on the Sunshine Ladies Tour. She didn’t just win it, she lapped the professionals by eight shots. She returned a closing 67 to go with earlier rounds of 69 and 68.
An amateur won the first Clutch Pro Tour event of the 2021 season. Harley Smith shot a 3-under-par 69 at Prince’s Golf Club and then defeated Paul Maddy and OJ Farrell in a playoff. Maddy is a seasoned professional who’s played European Tour events. Smith’s World Amateur Golf Ranking? He doesn’t have one!
True there have always been extremely talented players such as Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ko, Charley Hull and Rory McIlroy who have had no problem slotting into the professional game. Others had to serve longer apprenticeships before they made an impact. There now seems to be more amateurs turning pro who belong instantly on the professional circuits than in the past.
In 2017, Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup captain Craig Watson played in Amateur qualifying at Royal St George’s and Prince’s. The 1997 champion was there to look over potential GB & I team members; why not show the boys he could still play. He couldn’t. The Scot returned 81 at Prince’s and 74 over St George’s, the course on which he defeated Trevor Immelman to become Amateur champion. Watson missed the cut by 10 shots
He spoke of the difference between his day this age of amateur golf when he said:
“When I was playing full-time amateur golf, the goal was just to try to keep a bogey off your card, get round in level par. That’s no good nowadays because these kids are shooting lights out. It’s almost like they expect to shoot something in the 60s.”
Unlike Watson in his pomp, many of today’s amateurs are semi-pros using college/amateur golf to hone their skills for the professional tours. They benefit from the latest equipment and technology, expert coaching, psychologists, and play in conditions that mirror what they will face in the pro game. The days of Watson, Stuart Wilson, Gary Wolstenholme, Jim Holtgrieve and Jay Sigel staying amater, at least until they're 50, are well and truly gone. Very few remain amateur now. Why would they with so much money in professional golf?
Watson would have been aware of how good the youngsters were beforehand. He’d have been looking at impressive scores posted in amateur/college golf tournaments.
Those scores are just as impressive today as they were four years ago, perhaps more so. Scores in the 60s to win amateur golf tournaments are now de rigueur. France’s Roussin-Bouchard, currently fourth on the World Amateur Golf Ranking but previously number one, has just returned three scores in the 60s to win the SEC Women's Golf Championship. American Grace Kim shot three sub 70 scores to win the ACC Women's Golf Championship.
Two weeks ago, Fitzpatrick’s younger brother Alex shot rounds of 67, 66 and 68 to win the Valspar Collegiate, his first college victory. American Garett Reband returned three scores under 69 that same week to win the Men’s MIT Tournament.
Japan’s Keita Nakajima has just become the world’s number one amateur after a second-place finish in the Token Homemade Cup on the Japan Golf Tour. Yes, you guessed it, he shot three scores in the 60s to do so.
I don’t have record books of college/amateur scores – I wish one existed – but it seems to me scores are getting ever lower. If elite players have been conditioned to shoot sub 70 scores, is it any wonder they expect to do so when they turn professional?
#JustSaying: There’s a lot of money to be made in a short space of time these days, no wonder so many now turn pro.” Tom Watson, speaking in 1990
Photograph courtesy of the Ladies European Tour