Mystery surrounds looming Walker Cup cut

By Ryan LavnerAugust 18, 2015, 11:23 pm

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – U.S. Walker Cup captain Spider Miller understands the magnitude of the decision that looms this week.

He experienced it 18 years ago.

Miller won the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 1996, but he was left off the Walker Cup squad when the team was announced the following year. Worse, he was named the first alternate – or, viewed another way, he was the first man left off – for the matches at Quaker Ridge.

“That’s the worst call you can get,” he said Tuesday while strolling around Olympia Fields. “That’s what I told the USGA selection committee. I said, ‘I know what it’s like to receive that call, but I don’t know what it’s like to make that call.’ I received that call, and it’s no fun.”

The decision stung, but Miller, who owns Best Beers, Inc. in Bloomington, Ind., knew it was a difficult decision to make and was back in his office the next day at 6:30 a.m., business as usual.

The quality of competition in college and amateur golf has improved so much in recent years that the decision has never been more difficult.    

Tough phone calls await.

The first five U.S. team members for the 10-man squad were announced last week, with no surprises: Maverick McNealy, the reigning NCAA Player of the Year; Bryson DeChambeau, 2015 the NCAA champion; Beau Hossler, a three-time U.S. Open participant; Hunter Stewart, the former first-team All-American and Northeast Amateur winner; and Lee McCoy, who, at No. 4, is the second-highest ranked American amateur in the world.

The trouble now is that a compelling case can be made for about 15 other players.

The most blatant omission from that group is Alabama junior Robby Shelton, one of the world’s premier amateurs who recently finished third in the PGA Tour’s Barbasol Championship. Last fall, Shelton was chosen for the U.S. squad at the World Amateur Team Championship, but he declined an invitation to compete in Japan because the Tide, fresh off back-to-back NCAA titles, were playing their season opener that week and were already shorthanded with three players lost to graduation.

Also not among the first five selected is Oklahoma State senior Jordan Niebrugge, who was named to the U.S. team in 2013. He’s been quiet in college and amateur events since as he dealt with a wrist injury, but he reminded observers of his immense talent when he finished sixth at last month’s Open Championship – the best finish by an amateur at a St. Andrews Open since 1960.

The USGA also added a new wrinkle a few years ago, requiring that at least two mid-amateur players (age 25 or older) must make the 10-man squad.

So, do the math: Five players have already been selected … and Shelton and Niebrugge seem like clear choices … and there is a two mid-am requirement … and the USGA has always added that year’s U.S. Amateur winner (provided he is an American) to the team.

That leaves only one spot – maybe – up for grabs this week at the U.S. Amateur, the final chance for players to make a good impression.

The team could be finalized as early as Sunday night.  

“It’s a good news, bad news thing,” Miller said. “The good news is there’s a lot of strong players vying for spots. The bad news part is that there’s going to be several players, if not more, who most years would have made the team and won’t. I feel bad for that. I really do. But it’s a bumper crop.”

Miller has done his part to make an informed decision, traveling everywhere from Sea Island to Seattle, 13 events in all, over the past eight months. But he isn’t even a part of the six-person committee. All he can do is present his case.

The rest of the process is shrouded in mystery.

Nitpicking résumés of elite players who don’t compete against each other every week is an unenviable task, which makes it even more bizarre that the USGA doesn’t make its decisions more transparent.  

The Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup and Solheim Cup all have points lists. The USGA says there is an internal system that spits out numbers and weighs such factors as strength of schedule, but it chooses not to make that information public.  

That’s a mistake.

Making that list public would eliminate two things: (1) the unnecessary stress for players who are flying around the country in a desperate attempt to impress a secretive committee, and (2) most of the second-guessing that comes after an important decision that defines their amateur careers.

When asked how transparent the committee has been over the past few months, former Virginia standout Denny McCarthy – the favorite to land one of the final spots – said: “I literally have no idea. I can’t control what they do. The only thing I can control is the golf I play and my emotions. Hopefully I can play some really solid golf this week and leave no doubt in their mind that I should be a part of this team.”

When Shelton bowed out of the World Amateur Team Championship, it was McCarthy, a 2014 U.S. Amateur semifinalist, who got the call. All he did was close with 64 on a day when his teammates were struggling, helping lead the Americans to victory. If nothing else, that performance showed McCarthy’s big-game chops, and he boosted his résumé by making the cut at the U.S. Open and winning the Porter Cup a few weeks ago.

McCarthy is one of a handful of players who delayed turning pro just so he could have a chance to make the squad.  

“It’s been my goal for the last four or five years now and the main reason I stayed amateur,” he said. “I want to be on this team.”

Yet he’s far from the only contender, and the final decision could come down to which player performs the best here outside Chicago.

South Carolina senior Matt NeSmith is a future star on the big Tour, and he’s in the mix after winning the SEC Championship in the spring and capturing the prestigious Players Amateur over the summer. Aaron Wise won the Pacific Coast Amateur – played opposite the Porter Cup, and with a decidedly stronger field – and then lost to a lucky hole-out in the finals of the Western Amateur, the toughest test in amateur golf, with its four rounds of stroke-play qualifying and 16-man match-play bracket.

In the mid-am race, Scott Harvey, the 2014 Mid-Amateur champion, is the favorite to lock up one of the spots, with Nathan Smith, a three-time Walker Cupper, likely in line to make another appearance. Todd White, who was on the 2013 roster and a part of the winning U.S. Amateur Four-Ball team with Smith, is also under consideration.

“Chemistry is very important to me,” Miller said. “I tend to focus on their personalities, how they interact. My challenge is to get them to coalesce as a team.”

Except chemistry could be an issue if the Amateur produces another little-known American winner. A U.S. player hasn’t won this event since 2012, and that was Steven Fox, the 63rd seed in match play and a player ranked 127th in the world. The college golf world is one big fraternity, and selecting an unheralded player over proven commodities like, say, McCarthy (ranked sixth in the world) or NeSmith (one of the hottest American players) could cause friction within the team.

Whittling down to the top 10 U.S. representatives has never been simple.

Miller won’t make the call, but he can offer his opinion. After all, he went through this process 18 years ago, when he was left off the team. He bounced back from that disappointment and won the Mid-Amateur again in 1998, which was enough to convince the committee to put him on the ’99 squad.

“It’s tough,” he said, “but golfers are tough people. They get it. They know it’s not easy.”

It wasn’t for Miller all those years ago. There’s a fine line between making the team and receiving the worst call ever.

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Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix

By Associated PressJanuary 19, 2018, 3:52 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.

Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.

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Rahm (62) fires career low round

By Will GrayJanuary 19, 2018, 12:03 am

The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:

Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)

What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.

Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.

Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.

Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.

Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.

Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.

Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm

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Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:45 pm

Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.

"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."

Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.

"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."

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Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn

By Jason CrookJanuary 18, 2018, 11:40 pm

There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.

Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.

Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.

Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.


A post shared by Alex Noren (@alexnoren1) on

The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.

It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off for him.