Amateur Champions Struggling in Woods Wake

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2004 U.S. AmateurAt the Western Open, the amateurs dont practice alongside the professionals. The range is vast, creating segregation, de facto or de jure, between the two ' big bags to the left, small bags to the right.
 
It appeared, however, the Tuesday before the start of the tournament that one of the wannabes had decided to integrate with the pros.
 
He had this yellow, plastic device screwed to the grip of his club. You know, the one that is supposed to meet the left forearm on the takeaway and again on the follow-through.
 
He used this amateurish contraption on just about every club in his bag. He hit ball after ball after ball. Some would fade a little to the right, some would tail off to the left, and, occasionally, some would go straight.
 
But this guy had a big bag, a tour bag; one with his name on it, which read: David Gossett.
 
This week marks the five-year anniversary of Gossetts triumph in the U.S. Amateur Championship. At the time, he was just 20, the top amateur in the country ' full of promise and potential.
 
Now well, theres still promise and plenty of potential. But long gone are the days when he headed the class.
 
For the queasy or faint of heart, you may want to skip this paragraph ' its unsettling. Gossett has played 16 tournaments this year; hes made two cuts. Hes totaled $21,250 and ranks 238th on the money list. He has but five sub-par rounds on the season, and only one in the 60s.
 
The numbers ' his individual statistical rankings ' only get worse from there. But thats enough salt in the wounds.
 
Gossetts a good guy, very approachable. He doesnt need anyone to tell him what his numbers are this season; he knows them well enough. Still, he doesnt get angry or even defensive when you bring up these little devils.
 
Its never fun to go out and not score well, he said. Ive been working on my swing a little, on my takeaway. And Ive been working on my mind a little bit ' trying to slow down, trying not to put too much pressure on myself.
 
Gossett is half a decade removed from his Amateur victory, so there is no external or internal pressure to live up to that accomplishment.
 
The stress he is shouldering is derived from trying to maintain his livelihood. A victory in the 2001 John Deere Classic gave him a two-year exemption on tour. He finished 84th in earnings (with the top 125 gaining full exempt status) a year ago to keep his card this season.
 
On his current path, he will have to rely on his Past Champion status to play a limited number of tour events in 2005.
 
Gossett, however, is not alone in his struggles. Its been a little feast and a lot of famine for U.S. Amateur champions since Tiger Woods exited the amateur ranks.
 
Matt Kuchar, in 1997, was the first Amateur champion Post Tiger. He didnt turn professional until 2000, and then earned his PGA Tour card the following year through sponsors exemptions. In his first full season on tour he won the Honda Classic and finished 49th on the money list.
 
Armed with a two-year exemption, he made only eight of 23 cuts in 2003, and has made eight of 18 cuts thus far this season. Hes in danger of finishing outside the top 125 on the money list, but is in a better position than Gossett, at 131st on the money list.
 
After Kuchar, there was Kuehne.
 
Hank Kuehne stumbled around developmental tours upon winning the 1998 U.S. Am., capturing the Canadian Tours Order of Merit in 2002. He, like Kuchar, earned his PGA Tour card by playing well as a sponsors exemption, in 2003. After a rough start in 04, in which his missed 10 of his first 15 cuts, Kuehne is likely to be fully exempt next season as well. He has cashed a check in four of his last five tournaments to complement his fifth-place finish earlier in the season at the Nissan Open.
 
When you win the Amateur, youre expectations grow, Kuehne said. You feel you can play better and that you should play better. It takes a while to meet those expectations.
 
Ive been working on my swing, finally got everything back in order. Now its just taking it from the range to the golf course and letting it happen.
 
Gossett was next in line. He shot 59 in the fourth round of the 2000 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, but finished tied for 68th and had to settle for a spot on the Nationwide Tour. Splitting his time between the Majors and the Minors in 2001, he won the John Deere to cement his PGA Tour status. That status is now as sound as gravel.
 
The goals are still there, but you have to be realistic to how youre playing right now ' you have to adjust them, Gossett said. My No. 1 goal right now is to gain some confidence, to get some momentum out there on the course. I need to make some cuts, do well, and hopefully from there Ill make some top-10s.
 
Amazingly, not a single U.S. Amateur champion since Gossett has made a top-10 on the PGA Tour. Not a one.
 
Jeff Quinney (2000 champion), Ben Bubba Dickerson (2001), Ricky Barnes (2002) and Nick Flanagan (2003) have played in a total of 48 PGA Tour events; theyve combined to make 12 cuts, with Barnes tie for 14th in this years FBR Open the best finish, by far, among the four.
 
Quinney is partially exempt on the Nationwide Tour, having made six cuts in 13 starts this year. Hes 80th on the money list, with the top 20 getting PGA Tour cards for 2005.
 
Dickerson quit school at the University of Florida five months after his Amateur victory, turned professional after competing in the 2002 Masters (he could have played in the U.S. Open and British Open had he remained an amateur), and has since been searching for a permanent place to play. Hes competed on several mini-tours, including the Hooters Tour, and has played in a handful of European and Challenge tour events.
 
Barnes, likewise, has logged plenty of Frequent Flier miles.
 
It looked so promising for the swashbuckling blond, who drew Arnold Palmer comparisons, when he finished 21st in the 2003 Masters, bettering playing companion Woods over the first two days. He then made the cut at the U.S. Open, where he posted three rounds of 71 or better at Olympia Fields.
 
But, he didnt do enough with his sponsors exemptions in 2003 or 2004 to earn his PGA Tour card. This year alone, hes played seven PGA Tour events (making two cuts), four events in Europe (making one cut), two tournaments in Australia (tying for eighth in the ANZ Championship) and two tournaments on the Nationwide Tour (making both cuts).
 
'I expect a lot from myself,' Barnes said. 'I expected to get right through Q-School, be out here (on the PGA Tour), kind of make my mark right away. Unfortunately, that didn't happen.
 
'You know, just made the hill a little bit taller and steeper.'
 
Flanagan, who became the first Australian in 100 years to win the U.S. Amateur, has missed the cut in all six of his PGA Tour starts this season, but has had moderate success overseas. He tied for third in the ANZ Championship and tied for 32nd in the Heineken Classic, both Australasian and European tour co-sanctioned events. At the Heineken, while paired with Ernie Els and Adam Scott, he opened in 67 ' the same day Els fired 60.
 
Theres no doubt that hes good enough, Scott said of his countryman. But as long as he just enjoys himself, doesnt pressure himself to be the next Tiger Woods, hell be fine.
 
Winning the Amateur has probably made my expectations bigger, because Im playing different tournaments ' bigger tournaments than I would have been. But I cant really change the way I approach everything. Im just trying to do what Ive been doing, said Flanagan, who didnt really get interested in the game until he watched Woods win the 1997 Masters.
 
A lot is expected of a U.S. Amateur champion ' particularly in the wake of Woods, who helped amplify the events popularity. There are public and personal expectations to turn amateur accomplishment into professional proficiency.
 
Woods, of course, is a truly unique individual, meaning his followers certainly shouldnt be judged by comparison. Some will flourish, others will founder ' its just the way it is, and nothing new.
 
Long before Tigers Triple, there was a list of past champions ranging from Hall of Fame to Hall of Who? Tiger's successors are still trying to find their place somewhere in between.
 
This game is a fickle game, said Gossett. It comes and goes. Itll come again.
 
Related Links:
  • Full Coverage - U.S. Amateur Championship