BROOKLINE, Mass. – After making a mess of the 16th hole Wednesday, Sean Dale exhaled, removed his visor and grabbed a fistful of his short brown hair.
His U.S. Amateur was over.
Now, he only hopes his Walker Cup chances aren’t doomed, as well.
There are two tournaments being played out this week at The Country Club – one for the Havemeyer Trophy, the other for the opportunity to compete on the U.S. Walker Cup team.
The latter is the most intriguing early-week story here – late auditions can often be the best – and it became even more so Wednesday after three of the hopefuls were bounced from the Round of 64.
Four of the players who already have been named to the U.S. team (Michael Kim, Max Homa, Justin Thomas and Cory Whitsett) failed to even make it to match play here, opening the door for Jordan Niebrugge, Michael Weaver and Dale to stake their claim as to why they should don the team uniform.
In that race, Dale faced the most difficult obstacle in the Round of 64, drawing Stanford junior Patrick Rodgers, one of the best amateurs in the world and the only returnee from the 2011 team that will take on Great Britain and Ireland on Sept. 7-8 on Long Island.
A Dale victory Wednesday would have greatly impressed captain Jim Holtgrieve, who was on-hand to scout the prospects. After all, the former North Florida All-American won the Jones Cup earlier this season and reached the finals of the Western Amateur, and taking down a Walker Cupper twice in 2 1/2 weeks would show that he’s unafraid of a challenge. Instead, after a 3-and-2 loss in which he struggled on the back nine, Dale is left hoping that his resume is strong enough to secure one of the three available spots.
“It’s just not the way I wanted it to go down,” he said. “Anybody could have beaten me on the back nine today.”
After the NCAAs, Dale was told by a few insiders that he had a chance to make the 10-man team. That alone was enough motivation to stay amateur through the summer, and he responded by going 2-1-1 at the Palmer Cup, tying for seventh at the Players Amateur and reaching the finals of the Western Am, which boasts the strongest field of the summer.
“It’s a huge honor to play for your country,” Dale said. “If I had a 95 percent chance or a 5 percent chance, I was going to stay amateur and give it a shot.”
Rodgers made the team in 2011 as a rising college freshman and recalled feeling the same pressure in the events leading up to the decision.
“It’s a secretive process,” he said. “You never know where you stand, and all you can do is try and play your best golf.”
The rest of the squad will be filled out after this week’s U.S. Amateur, and the selection process will prove to be especially interesting this year.
The USGA, citing the “positive influence” that the mid-amateurs bring to the competition, announced a new rule in January that at least two mid-ams (age 25 or older) must be selected to the team. The move was questionable for several reasons, not least because the R&A didn’t implement a similar policy for Team GB&I and also because the U.S. is now not necessarily sending out its 10 best players.
The end result: The top American amateurs are effectively fighting for eight (maybe even seven) spots, depending on whether there’s a U.S.-born Amateur winner here.
Weaver likely could have avoided this drama had he not lost the final three holes in last year’s U.S. Amateur final. On his resume instead is that runner-up at Cherry Hills, a 64th-place finish at the U.S. Open, a solo second at the Players Amateur and a sixth-place showing at the Western.
But after losing his opening match here to Greg Eason, his fate now rests with the selection committee.
“There’s nothing I can do about that,” Weaver said. “It’s not objective; it’s completely subjective and they’re going to make the decision that they want.”
Then, unprompted, Weaver stated his case for why he should be selected.
“I hope I’ve done enough,” he said. “I’m ranked pretty high (No. 8 in R&A’s World Amateur Rankings) and didn’t get picked yet, so it’s not all off rankings and I needed to keep playing well.
“Hopefully (the Round of 64 loss) doesn’t make a difference and I get picked. I knew coming in that I could play well and not make the team. I felt like I’ve played consistently since this tournament last year. I think that’s something worthwhile to consider if they’re looking to pick me. … I’m going to keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.”
At this point, that’s all Niebrugge can do, too. The Oklahoma State sophomore seemingly came out of nowhere to sweep the U.S. Amateur Public Links, Wisconsin State Amateur and top-notch Western Am in consecutive weeks. But on Wednesday, he kicked away a late lead and lost, 1 up, in his opener.
His will be the ultimate case study. Prior to this summer, he didn’t have the same championship pedigree of the rest of the Walker Cup hopefuls, but no one has performed better in the past two months.
“At the beginning of the summer I was nowhere near on his radar,” Niebrugge said. “We’ll see. There’s nothing I can do about it now.”
So, who, if anyone, benefitted from Wednesday’s opening round? The big winner was Alabama senior Bobby Wyatt. For months he seemed like a lock to join friends and teammates Cory Whitsett and Justin Thomas on the team, but he’s endured a rocky summer that put his spot in jeopardy. Wyatt, however, cruised to a 4-and-3 victory on Day 1.
“It’s been weighing on me this summer a little bit,” he said. “It’s a big goal of mine. That’s the pinnacle of amateur golf. You’ve just got to keep your head down and win your matches, and it’ll take care of itself.”
At this event, with two prizes on the line, that’s not as simple as it sounds.