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  • Alistair Tait

The Amateur Championship’s death zone

The press tent was empty on Saturday morning as the final of the 2000 Amateur Championship got underway. It was like a morgue compared to Friday afternoon.

Turns out the 36-hole contest between Christian Reimbold and Mikko Ilonen, who won 2&1 in one of the slowest finals ever, wasn’t that appealing to British newspapers.

Once again, the quarterfinals of the Amateur Championship had taken their toll on the game’s oldest national championship. (Today should have been quarterfinal and semi-final day at Royal Birkdale in this year’s championship, which has been postponed until August because of coronavirus.)

The 2000 championship at Royal Liverpool isn’t one for the memory books. The tournament was struggling even before the quarterfinals. Future European Tour winners Nicolas Colsaerts, Jamie Donaldson, Nick Dougherty and Michael Hoey had all lost before we even reached Friday. Myself and other golf journalists – back in the day when golf journalists actually covered the Amateur Championship – were clutching at straws.

Being a parochial bunch, we were hoping for either Stuart Wilson and David Patrick of Scotland or Englishmen Zane Scotland or David Ryles to get through to the final. Scotland was an enticing possibility. He’d played in the previous year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie as a 16-year-old.

Instead we got an international semi-final quartet in Australian Andrew Webster, Finnish player Ilonen, Dutchman Guido van der Valk and Reimbold of Germany. And the press tent emptied. To be fair to Ilonen, he went on to win five European Tour titles. However, a Finland v Germany final just didn’t cut it for sports editors of British newspapers.

Then Guardian golf writer Dai Davies had an argument with his desk when the sports editor said he didn’t want any copy from that day’s play. Davies politely pointed out he’d been writing stories from the Amateur Championship all week, that surely the newspaper’s golf loving readers would want to know what happened that day. His appeals fell on deaf ears. Other journalists in the tent might have been luckier to get some space in the next morning’s editions, but only to clear their throats.

I turned up on Saturday morning to find myself and Scott Crockett, now the European Tour’s director of communications, as the only two golf journalists left covering the championship. It was as if someone had told the others Royal Birkdale was offering free golf that Saturday.

Still, Wilson, Scotland, Ryles and Patrick had nothing to feel ashamed off. Greater players have lost in the quarterfinals of the game’s greatest amateur tournament. It’s the Amateur Championship’s death zone for future stars.

Here’s a roll call of famous players who exited stage left in the Amateur Championship quarterfinals.

Jack Nicklaus was a losing quarterfinalist in the 1959 Amateur Championship at Royal St George’s. He lost 5&4 to William Hyndman III. Nicklaus went on to win 18 majors while Hyndman was a career amateur who played on five U.S. Walker Cup teams.

Sandy Lyle lost in the 1977 quarterfinal at Ganton to fellow Scot Paul McKellar of East Renfrewshire Golf Club. Lyle is a two-time major winner while McKellar, who lost in the final the following year to Peter McEvoy and played in the Walker Cup, has no doubt dined out on his famous win ever since.

Ronan Rafferty went on to win seven European Tour events and the 1989 money list, but he couldn’t handle Welshman Duncan Evans in the 1980 quarterfinal at Royal Porthcawl. Rafferty lost 2&1.

Lee Westwood lost by one hole to Bradley Dredge in the 1992 quarterfinals at Carnoustie. Dredge lost 7&6 to Scotland’s Stephen Dundas in the final. Welshman Dredge went on to win two European Tour titles, 23 less than Westwood.

Padraig Harrington’s quarterfinal contest against England’s Paul Page in the 1993 championship at Royal Portrush now looks like a mismatch. Yet the future three-time major winner lost 3&2. Page lost in the final to Iain Pyman. Page never found traction on the European Tour. He remains a Tiger Woods trivia question: he was the last player to defeat Woods in the (1993) U.S. Amateur.

The 1998 championship is arguably the best example of future stars losing to lesser names in the quarterfinals. Trevor Immelman went on to win the 2008 Masters but he was no match for England’s Mark Hilton at Muirfield, losing 2&1 to a guy who never made it onto the European Tour. Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion, went down 4&3 to Welshman Craig Williams, who made six unsuccessful trips to the European Tour Qualifying School.

Francesco Molinari looked impressive in the 2004 championship at St Andrews until he went up against eventual winner Stuart Wilson. The Scot defeated the Italian 3&1. Molinari won the 2018 Open Championship at Carnoustie, not far from Forfar Golf Club where career amateur and current Walker Cup captain Wilson is secretary.

I wonder which future major champion/European Tour winner will go down in the quarterfinals this year, should the championship take place. He’ll join illustrious company.

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