Things I like/dislike: 2018 U.S. Amateur

The 118th edition of the United States Amateur finished up on Sunday at Pebble Beach. Similar to the U.S. Open and Open Championships, the U.S. Am has a hallowed history full of historic champions. Unlike those major championships, the U.S. Am is an intimate affair. Fans can walk the fairways with the future legends of our game and get access to places they may never otherwise see. It is everything that golf should strive to be; accessible, dramatic, entertaining, and rewarding. 

 The 7th hole at Pebble Beach. Photo Credit: DJ Piehowski  @djpie

The 7th hole at Pebble Beach. Photo Credit: DJ Piehowski @djpie

After watching a lion’s share of coverage this week, here is what I liked and disliked from the 118th playing of our sport’s highest amateur event.

Like - The U.S. Amateur as a warm-up for the U.S. Open

The USGA is on the verge of a serious breakthrough. Hosting the U.S. Amateur at the same venue as the following U.S. Open provides a perfect test run for conditions. The Am is played in August as opposed to June and there are less logistical issues (fans and grandstands), but the rest is very similar. They can see how the top 0.1% of golfers play the course and understand what changes may need to be made for the U.S. Open the following year. TV viewers and fans on the ground also get a peek at what to expect the following June.

Getting courses/clubs/resorts to agree to having two of the USGA’s largest events in a 10-month period is going to be the largest bottleneck. Members aren’t likely to give up their course for two-week long periods that will provide some strain to the course. There is also the issue of needing 2 courses because the U.S. Am currently allows for around 300 players at the beginning of the week. This requires a secondary course that is capable of providing a good test for two days of stroke play. For example, this week they used Spyglass Hill. The next two U.S. Ams are set to be held at Pinehurst and Bandon Dunes, places where courses are in abundance. 

Like - Viktor Hovland’s Tenacity

The eventual champion of the U.S. Amateur this year was Viktor Hovland, a junior-to-be at Oklahoma State. In the last four months, Hovland has gone 3-0 in match play to help OSU win a national title and won 6 matches to win at Pebble Beach. He only trailed for one hole over his six matches this week and was never in any real danger of losing.

What makes Hovland so dangerous is his mind-numbing consistency. Even with Pebble’s incredibly small greens, Hovland was consistently putting himself in the right position. He understood the situation of his opponent and positioned himself accordingly. More than anything, this is a mental roadblock for the player on the other side of the tee. They know he is going to make very few mistakes and that puts even more pressure on their shot. Hovland is ranked as a top 5 amateur in the world and proved that he belongs there this week.

Dislike - The definition of “amateur”

I have absolutely no idea how cruise ships can float. I get the whole water displacement thing, but they are so insanely large that my brain thinks they should just sink immediately.

Similarly, my brain cannot fully conceptualize what qualifies you to be an amateur golfer. Too many players turn professional, earn thousands of dollars playing on tours, and then regain their amateur status after they cannot hang with the pros. One player in particular this week has earned over $700k playing professional golf and yet is deemed an “amateur” in 2018. No need to name names, but that is absolutely insane.

It’s a tricky subject because some players turn pro and quickly realize they are not good enough to hang with the best of the best. I don’t have any issue with them playing as amateurs for the rest of their lives. They tried, they quickly failed, they’ll be working regular jobs the rest of their lives...they are amateurs. All in all, I am not sure what the line is...but $700k in career earnings is definitely passed it.

Like - Cole Hammer’s future

Just in case you have been living under a rock, Cole Hammer has had one of the best summers an amateur golfer can have. He won the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball, Azalea Invite, and Western Amateur, was co-medalist in the stroke play portion of the U.S. Am, and eventually lost to Hovland in the semi-finals. All in all, he went 17 and 2 in match play this summer, continually displaying his patience and skill in outlasting opponents.

The 18-year-old is a special player and wise beyond his years. He does not get out of position and is very cerebral in his approach to every shot. He will gain some strength when he gets to Texas this fall, and I fully expect him to be a force at the NCAA Championship in May. He moves the ball both ways, putts the lights out, and is confident in every decision he makes. No shot is every hit without being fully committed to the task at hand. Still, he is 18 years old. He will be asked about turning professional numerous times in the next couple years. It remains to be seen whether he will turn pro early like former Longhorn Jordan Spieth or if he will stay committed to Texas for all four years like Doug Ghim. Regardless, he has big things ahead of him.

Like - Devon Bling’s name (and him in general)

I mean, c’mon. It’s awesome. A Californian himself, Bling had many friends and family members walking with him during the week. One that was notably missing was his mom, who passed away from a sudden stroke just 5 years ago. His dad was seen on camera pointing to the sky multiple times throughout his matches, and you can tell that golf means a lot to their family. 

Bling was a relative unknown heading into the event. He plays on UCLA’s team but finished last season 3rd in scoring average for the Bruins. Similar to Doc Redman at last year’s U.S. Am, he made a charge through some of the country’s best players as the underdog. He defeated top-tier players like Davis Riley, Isaiah Salinda, Shintaro Ban, and Noah Goodwin on his way to the championship match with Hovland. He won’t be known as a U.S. Am champion, but he will gain an enormous amount of confidence from this week and has earned himself invites to the Masters and U.S. Open next year.

Dislike - Pebble Beach’s cart paths

This is a small one (because it will never change), but it is an absolute shame that a place as beautiful as Pebble Beach has concrete interfering with its elegance. Pebble is a money-making machine as is, and yet it would be an out-of-body experience for everyone if it could achieve its full potential.

Like - The experience of the Fox Sports broadcast team

The Fox Sports team has come quite a long way since the Chambers Bay debacle of 2015. Shane Bacon and Joe Buck provide extremely talented hosts, Paul Azinger and Brad Faxon bring the playing experience, and Ken Brown presents great insights to the golf course. 

The U.S. Am produces top-notch players with very distinct backgrounds playing a world-class golf course with many subtleties. This combination brings out the best of the Fox Sports team. Their week at Pebble Beach was full of great stories, insights on strategy, and education on each player on screen. The lack of commercials gave them plenty of time to provide color on the players involved in the matches and allowed for enough time to set up each shot properly.

Dislike - When 24 for 1 Playoffs only last 2 holes

The 64th spot in match play was decided by a 24 for 1 playoff on Wednesday morning. Six foursomes teed off the 17th hole at Pebble in a process that took over an hour. The USGA had to do the playoff this way because it weeded out players much quicker than playing a par 4 or 5 would. Only two players made a 2 on 17, and the playoff was ultimately decided on the home hole. It is highly unlikely that we will ever see a playoff like this again, but man was the idea of chaos exciting.

Bottom line, the 118th edition of the U.S. Amateur was a huge success. It had all the drama and intrigue of a U.S. Open without any of the fan outcry and player accusations. Golf as it was meant to be played.