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Youth served

Patrick Cantlay
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Chris Haack already knew the outcome, having followed the action online hours earlier and sealed the victory with a short phone call, but he wanted an encore.

“I sat down with a bowl of popcorn, put my feet up and just watched,” the University of Georgia men’s golf coach said when asked how he spent his Sunday afternoon.

Forgive Haack if he’s becoming a bit of a Sunday couch potato, his Bulldogs are making it look easy even if he knows it is not. For the second time this year one of Haack’s players stunned the play-for-pay types and won a Nationwide Tour event, the bookend victory coming on Sunday when Harris English held on to win the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational in Ohio.

If the rumors of American golf’s death proved to be greatly exaggerated last week at Royal St. George’s, where the final leaderboard featured six U.S. flags out of the top-10 finishers, than the future of golf in the United States is starting to look like a simmering pot.

On the same weekend the amateur English took it to the field at Ohio State’s Scarlet Course, baby-faced Patrick Cantlay continued what can best be described as an endless summer with his tie for ninth at the Canadian Open.

Since the NCAA Division Championship in June, the UCLA sophomore-to-be has won the Jack Nicklaus Award, took low-amateur honors at the U.S. Open (T-21), tied for 24th at the Travelers Championship, 20th at the AT&T National and won the Southern California Amateur.

Along the way Cantlay has also took a pass on about $356,000 in Tour winnings. That kind of walking-around money can buy a lot of text books, not that the 19-year-old is much interested in paydays just yet. He says he’s going back to UCLA in the fall, after the U.S. Amateur and hopefully the Walker Cup, and will finish his degree.

“Until he shot 30 on the back nine at the U.S. Open no one was asking him about going back to college,” said Cantlay’s uber-cool swing coach Jamie Mulligan.

Monday morning caddies across golf-dom can second-guess all they want, the bright lights and big paydays of professional golf can wait not just for Cantlay but for English and fellow Bulldog Russell Henley, who won the Nationwide Tour’s Stadion Classic at UGA in May.

All three players plan to remain amateurs through the summer, with English and Henley likely turning pro after September’s Walker Cup in Scotland. It’s a clarity of thought that has particularly impressed Mulligan this summer.

“(Cantlay) listens unbelievably well,” Mulligan said. “It’s just golf, that’s been our theme all summer. Don’t get caught up with hitting balls next to Ernie Els or the courtesy cars. It’s just golf. There’s worse things that can happen than a kid going to college.”

Not that the decision to remain an amateur will get any easier, particularly for Cantlay. Even Haack concedes that it would be a difficult discussion if he had a player in a similar position.

“Out of all of these guys it’s Cantlay that is so impressive,” Haack said. “He’s a freshman and doing it every week. He’s playing like a Tour player already. Going back to college may feel like he’s going back to high school golf. . . . It’s going to be hard for him to pass everything up.”

It’s about the only thing that will be hard for Cantlay & Co. this summer, which prompts a much more important question. What has sparked the young American surge?

Although deep, few would call this year’s college class the deepest in recent memory – that honor likely belongs to the 2007 class that included the likes of Dustin Johnson and Chris Kirk. In fact, eight players from the 2007 U.S. Walker Cup team now have at least partial PGA Tour status. Nor is this year’s class laden with “big name” players, like a Rickie Fowler or Jamie Lovemark. At least not yet.

What they do have, however, is a level of familiarity with the professional game that didn’t exist just a few years ago.

“I think the intimidation factor isn’t what it was,” Haack said. “It’s surprising only because you’ve never seen guys do something like this on a regular basis. It exposes how good college golf is.”

Simply put, young players are more prepared for what awaits them at the next level. Whether the likes of English and Henley have the ability to sustain their success and weather the rigors of tour life remains to be seen, but they’ve already proven that they have the games to compete at the highest levels.

“I knew I could beat all those guys. My goal was to win, but I didn't get it done,” said fellow amateur John Peterson, who was outdueled by English in Ohio. “I didn't win the tournament, but I beat all the pros.”

On this Mulligan takes what he calls the “macro” view: “American golf is healthier than it has been in a long, long, long time. A 15-year-old player is better than a 15-year-old player was 10 years ago.”

Whether one is watching from 30,000 feet, or Haack’s couch, the view remains the same. Maybe there’s hope for American golf after all.