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Amateur hour: The kids are all right

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Few stories capture the imagination of golf fans quite like an amateur contending in a professional event, but these days there’s more than just the underdog appeal.

Sure, the amateurs still have the lively interactions with the crowd, the charming personalities, the mismatched wardrobes and the university stand bags.

But they can’t be so easily dismissed anymore. The kids have proven over the past few years that they’re here to compete.

Let’s put this recent stretch in perspective:

It’s been 25 years since a 20-year-old Phil Mickelson won as an amateur on the PGA Tour. Two decades after Lefty’s victory in Tucson, only two players – Justin Rose (1998) and Chris Wood (2008) – earned top-five finishes on Tour as amateurs.

Over the past two seasons, three players have accomplished the feat, most recently Georgia senior Lee McCoy, who finished fourth last week at the Valspar Championship. That group doesn’t even include Oklahoma State senior Jordan Niebrugge, who had arguably the most impressive performance, a tie for sixth at last year’s Open Championship. He was one of three amateurs who finished in the top 20; Paul Dunne, a month removed from competing in the NCAA Championship, shared the 54-hole lead at St. Andrews, the youngest player to hold that position at the Open since 1927.

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There are several reasons for this explosion of amateur success.

Technology has helped level the playing field. Coaching, fitness and competition have never been better. And the courses they play in college are Tour-caliber, set up like a major to protect par. Tournament directors also have paid attention to the influx of young talent, with an increasing number of officials – from the Travelers, John Deere and Puerto Rico, in particular – extending a spot to top up-and-comers instead of aging warriors who haven’t been competitive in years.

Why there hasn’t been another amateur winner – the fourth in Tour history – has been harder to pinpoint.

“It’s most likely because they don’t train at the same level as professionals and they don’t have the mindset as professionals,” Illinois coach Mike Small said. “How many Tour events did Tiger Woods play as an amateur (14)? If he didn’t win any, it would be hard for anyone else to.

“But almost the minute he turned pro, he won, which makes me thinkthat the mindset and expectations are huge factors in the ability to close the deal. Closing the deal is very difficult in these times because more professionals are more prepared than ever before.”

This recent run by the amateurs began with Arizona State’s Jon Rahm at the 2015 Phoenix Open, when he tied for fifth. Five months later, at the Tour’s opposite-field Barbasol Championship, Alabama’s Robby Shelton was among the leaders on the back nine before tying for third.

The latest star turn came last week in Tampa, when the 22-year-old McCoy, playing in his hometown tournament, outplayed Jordan Spieth on Sunday and finished fourth, three shots out of a playoff.

“You would have thought he was out here for years,” Spieth said afterward.

McCoy has never been short on confidence, but he epitomizes the current crop of young players who are fearless, hungry and motivated. Their expectations have shifted, from relishing an opportunity to play alongside the world’s best to trying to beat them.

“Back in the day when I was playing, I was like, Oh, I’m just happy to make the cut, especially as an amateur playing in a professional event back in Australia,” world No. 3 Jason Day said. “But these guys are talking about winning. It’s not that easy, but these guys, they’ve got that fearless approach and they’re talking about winning tournaments.”

It also helps when the top-ranked player on the planet is Spieth, who is already a two-time major winner at age 22. Had the Texan graduated, he would only be a year removed from college. That means many of the top players coming through now competed against Spieth on the junior and amateur level – and probably beat him a time or two.

“You have to praise the young guys on Tour who have helped the current collegians have the confidence that a young player, pro or amateur, can go out and contend or win,” Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton said.

The copycat effect was very real for Bryson DeChambeau, who watched in 2012 as rookie Derek Ernst – who had attended the same high school in Clovis, Calif. – won at Quail Hollow at age 22. At the time, DeChambeau was only a freshman at SMU, but “that was inspiring to me, because I knew it could be possible. It’s an accumulation of all these amateurs playing well that gives all of us confidence.” Last fall, he tied for second in a pro event in Australia.

Stanford junior Maverick McNealy doesn’t need to search hard for inspiration this week at Bay Hill. Two weeks ago, the reigning NCAA player of the year teed it up alongside McCoy for the first two rounds of a college event in Cabo. McNealy said Tuesday he wasn’t surprised at all by his friend’s success on Tour – McCoy was striping it and beat him by five that week.

But McNealy is unlike many of his ultra-talented peers in that he doesn’t arrive here expecting to contend. He concedes that every aspect of a pro tournament – the crowds, the rough, the greens, the hole locations – is still a step outside of his “comfort zone.”  

“But it’s really powerful to come out here with no expectations,” he said, “and just expect that I’m going to have a lot of fun and do my best and in terms of confidence, that’s the best I can do for myself.”

A different mentality, yes, but it could lead to another big week for the amateurs.

At this point, it wouldn’t rate as a surprise.