Amateur hour: The kids are all right

By Ryan LavnerMarch 15, 2016, 7:33 pm

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.

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Watch: Full replays of The Open coverage

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 19, 2018, 8:55 pm

NBC Sports and Golf Channel are showcasing nearly 50 hours of live coverage of the 146th Open. Missed anything? Well, you can catch up right here. Click on the links below for replays from Royal Birkdale, broken down into daily segments:

Thursday, Day 1 (Times ET)

Noon-4PM (Watch): Tiger Woods was up and down in the afternoon, as winds picked up a little and no one could catch Kevin Kisner. Click here or on the image below to watch. Also, click here to watch the full replay of the early marquee group: Woods, Russell Knox and Hideki Matsuyama.

1:30-8:25AM (Watch): Defending champion Jordan Spieth got off to a good start, while Kevin Kisner (66) set the early pace. Click here or on the image below to watch. Also, click here to watch the full replay of the early marquee group: Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm and Chris Wood.

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Knox relishes round with 'mythical figure' Woods

By Ryan LavnerJuly 19, 2018, 8:48 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Russell Knox was expecting the worst and hoping for the best Thursday at The Open.

Playing with Tiger Woods tends to have that effect.

The native Scot received a treat earlier this week when he saw his name on the tee sheet alongside his boyhood idol, Woods.

“Felt good out there, but obviously my swing, it was just like I had too much tension,” Knox said after an opening 73. “I just wasn’t letting it go as normal. First round with Tiger, I expected to feel a little bit different. The way I felt was better than the way I swung.”

Knox said that he was nervous playing alongside Woods, a player he’d only encountered on the range. “He’s almost like a mythical figure,” he said.

But after a while, he settled into the rhythm of the round at Carnoustie.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


“I thought it would be worse,” he said, “I feel like I should know what I’m doing. It’s cool playing with Tiger, but I’ve got to get over that. I’m here to win, not just enjoy my walk around the course.”

Knox probably had more interaction with Woods than he anticipated, if only because the third member of the group, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, keeps to himself because of the language barrier.

“It’s kind of a blur,” Knox said. “It’s like, Oh, I’m chatting away with Tiger here like normal. I don’t even remember what I was saying.”

There have been countless stories from this year as the next generation of players – guys who grew up watching Woods dominate the sport – get paired with Woods for the first time.

It was no less special for Knox on Thursday.

“It’s nice for him to say things like that,” Woods said, “and we enjoyed playing with each other. Hopefully we’ll play a little bit better tomorrow.”

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Rain expected to shower Carnoustie Friday morning

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 19, 2018, 8:43 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – By the end of the day Friday, we’ll be able to determine which side of The Open draw ended the first two rounds at Carnoustie with more favorable conditions. With rain expected for most of Friday morning, it seems those who played early/late may be more pleased.

According to Weather.com, there is a 75 percent chance of rain beginning at 2 a.m. local time Friday here in Scotland. That percentage vaults up to 95 percent by 7 a.m., with the first tee time scheduled for 6:35. At 11, the number drops to 55 percent. After 2 p.m., the percentage chances of rain are 25 percent and below for the remainder of the day.

Temperatures during the day are expected to be from the low 50s to the low 60s and winds will vary between 14-18 mph, again per Weather.com.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


This is The Open’s official weather report for the weekend:

Saturday: A dull start with some drizzle possible. Staying cloudy for much of the day but gradually becoming brighter with a chance of some sunny intervals during the afternoon and evening. Winds light and variable in direction but should predominantly settle in to a SSE 8-12mph during the afternoon. Max temp 20C (68F).

Sunday: Often cloudy but mainly dry. A better chance of some decent sunny spells compared to Saturday. Most likely the windiest day of the Championship; SW 12-18mph with gusts 20-25mph. Feeling warm, especially in any sunshine with a max temp of 23C (73F).

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Bandaged Woods 5 back after even-par 71

By Ryan LavnerJuly 19, 2018, 8:38 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Tiger Woods arrived Thursday with therapeutic tape on the back of his neck.

Carnoustie’s back nine inflicted even more pain.

Playing in the most difficult conditions of the day, Woods’ progress was stalled by two late bogeys as he settled for an even-par 71 that left him five shots off the lead at The Open.

“I played better than what the score indicates,” he said. “It certainly could have been a little bit better.”

Woods created a stir when he showed up with black kinesiology tape on his neck. Afterward, he said that his neck has been bugging him “for a while” and that Thursday was merely the first time that the tape was visible.

“Everyone acts like this is the first time I’ve been bandaged up,” he said, smiling. “I’ve been doing this for years.”

Woods said that the discomfort didn’t really affect his swing, other than a few shots “here and there.” It didn’t seem to affect his score, either, as he went out in 2 under before a few stumbles on the back nine.

On the fast, baked-out turf, he played conservatively off the tee, using driver only once and 3-wood just twice. Apparently he didn’t need the added distance, not with his 6-iron traveling 240 yards. He tried to play to his spots, even if it routinely left him more than 200 yards for his approach.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


That’s the strategy he employed at Hoylake in 2006, where he hit driver just once and captured the third of his Open titles. Despite some of the similarities in firmness, Woods said that Carnoustie presents a different challenge off the tee.

“These fairways are very small,” he said. “They’re hard to hit right now. They’re so fast, and they’re so moundy.”

Finding the fairway wasn’t the chief problem for Woods on Day 1, however. He missed just four fairways but found only 11 greens.

More damaging to his score was his play on the par 5s. Despite having only an 8-iron in, he failed to birdie each of the two par 5s and then bogeyed Nos. 10, 13 and 15 to squander his early momentum.

Though the draw here won’t be a significant factor – or at least not like in recent years, with a wide range in scores from morning to afternoon – it’s clear that Woods (in game 47 of 52) encountered the most difficult of the conditions Thursday, with the wind gusting to 20 mph and the fairways running even faster after another sun-splashed afternoon.

Still, his opening 71 was one of the better scores in the late wave.

“He hit it good,” said playing partner Russell Knox. “He plotted his way around, which I expected him to do, and he was very conservative off the tee. It’s kind of fun to watch him do that, to be honest.”

Even more fun would be a major with Woods in contention.

He hasn’t broken par in the opening round of his last eight majors. Indeed, for Woods, these slow starts have been the real pain in the neck.