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Mystery surrounds looming Walker Cup cut

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OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – U.S. Walker Cup captain Spider Miller understands the magnitude of the decision that looms this week.

He experienced it 18 years ago.

Miller won the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 1996, but he was left off the Walker Cup squad when the team was announced the following year. Worse, he was named the first alternate – or, viewed another way, he was the first man left off – for the matches at Quaker Ridge.

“That’s the worst call you can get,” he said Tuesday while strolling around Olympia Fields. “That’s what I told the USGA selection committee. I said, ‘I know what it’s like to receive that call, but I don’t know what it’s like to make that call.’ I received that call, and it’s no fun.”

The decision stung, but Miller, who owns Best Beers, Inc. in Bloomington, Ind., knew it was a difficult decision to make and was back in his office the next day at 6:30 a.m., business as usual.

The quality of competition in college and amateur golf has improved so much in recent years that the decision has never been more difficult.    

Tough phone calls await.

The first five U.S. team members for the 10-man squad were announced last week, with no surprises: Maverick McNealy, the reigning NCAA Player of the Year; Bryson DeChambeau, 2015 the NCAA champion; Beau Hossler, a three-time U.S. Open participant; Hunter Stewart, the former first-team All-American and Northeast Amateur winner; and Lee McCoy, who, at No. 4, is the second-highest ranked American amateur in the world.

The trouble now is that a compelling case can be made for about 15 other players.

The most blatant omission from that group is Alabama junior Robby Shelton, one of the world’s premier amateurs who recently finished third in the PGA Tour’s Barbasol Championship. Last fall, Shelton was chosen for the U.S. squad at the World Amateur Team Championship, but he declined an invitation to compete in Japan because the Tide, fresh off back-to-back NCAA titles, were playing their season opener that week and were already shorthanded with three players lost to graduation.

Also not among the first five selected is Oklahoma State senior Jordan Niebrugge, who was named to the U.S. team in 2013. He’s been quiet in college and amateur events since as he dealt with a wrist injury, but he reminded observers of his immense talent when he finished sixth at last month’s Open Championship – the best finish by an amateur at a St. Andrews Open since 1960.

The USGA also added a new wrinkle a few years ago, requiring that at least two mid-amateur players (age 25 or older) must make the 10-man squad.

So, do the math: Five players have already been selected … and Shelton and Niebrugge seem like clear choices … and there is a two mid-am requirement … and the USGA has always added that year’s U.S. Amateur winner (provided he is an American) to the team.

That leaves only one spot – maybe – up for grabs this week at the U.S. Amateur, the final chance for players to make a good impression.

The team could be finalized as early as Sunday night.  

“It’s a good news, bad news thing,” Miller said. “The good news is there’s a lot of strong players vying for spots. The bad news part is that there’s going to be several players, if not more, who most years would have made the team and won’t. I feel bad for that. I really do. But it’s a bumper crop.”

Miller has done his part to make an informed decision, traveling everywhere from Sea Island to Seattle, 13 events in all, over the past eight months. But he isn’t even a part of the six-person committee. All he can do is present his case.

The rest of the process is shrouded in mystery.

Nitpicking résumés of elite players who don’t compete against each other every week is an unenviable task, which makes it even more bizarre that the USGA doesn’t make its decisions more transparent.  

The Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup and Solheim Cup all have points lists. The USGA says there is an internal system that spits out numbers and weighs such factors as strength of schedule, but it chooses not to make that information public.  

That’s a mistake.

Making that list public would eliminate two things: (1) the unnecessary stress for players who are flying around the country in a desperate attempt to impress a secretive committee, and (2) most of the second-guessing that comes after an important decision that defines their amateur careers.

When asked how transparent the committee has been over the past few months, former Virginia standout Denny McCarthy – the favorite to land one of the final spots – said: “I literally have no idea. I can’t control what they do. The only thing I can control is the golf I play and my emotions. Hopefully I can play some really solid golf this week and leave no doubt in their mind that I should be a part of this team.”

When Shelton bowed out of the World Amateur Team Championship, it was McCarthy, a 2014 U.S. Amateur semifinalist, who got the call. All he did was close with 64 on a day when his teammates were struggling, helping lead the Americans to victory. If nothing else, that performance showed McCarthy’s big-game chops, and he boosted his résumé by making the cut at the U.S. Open and winning the Porter Cup a few weeks ago.

McCarthy is one of a handful of players who delayed turning pro just so he could have a chance to make the squad.  

“It’s been my goal for the last four or five years now and the main reason I stayed amateur,” he said. “I want to be on this team.”

Yet he’s far from the only contender, and the final decision could come down to which player performs the best here outside Chicago.

South Carolina senior Matt NeSmith is a future star on the big Tour, and he’s in the mix after winning the SEC Championship in the spring and capturing the prestigious Players Amateur over the summer. Aaron Wise won the Pacific Coast Amateur – played opposite the Porter Cup, and with a decidedly stronger field – and then lost to a lucky hole-out in the finals of the Western Amateur, the toughest test in amateur golf, with its four rounds of stroke-play qualifying and 16-man match-play bracket.

In the mid-am race, Scott Harvey, the 2014 Mid-Amateur champion, is the favorite to lock up one of the spots, with Nathan Smith, a three-time Walker Cupper, likely in line to make another appearance. Todd White, who was on the 2013 roster and a part of the winning U.S. Amateur Four-Ball team with Smith, is also under consideration.

“Chemistry is very important to me,” Miller said. “I tend to focus on their personalities, how they interact. My challenge is to get them to coalesce as a team.”

Except chemistry could be an issue if the Amateur produces another little-known American winner. A U.S. player hasn’t won this event since 2012, and that was Steven Fox, the 63rd seed in match play and a player ranked 127th in the world. The college golf world is one big fraternity, and selecting an unheralded player over proven commodities like, say, McCarthy (ranked sixth in the world) or NeSmith (one of the hottest American players) could cause friction within the team.

Whittling down to the top 10 U.S. representatives has never been simple.

Miller won’t make the call, but he can offer his opinion. After all, he went through this process 18 years ago, when he was left off the team. He bounced back from that disappointment and won the Mid-Amateur again in 1998, which was enough to convince the committee to put him on the ’99 squad.

“It’s tough,” he said, “but golfers are tough people. They get it. They know it’s not easy.”

It wasn’t for Miller all those years ago. There’s a fine line between making the team and receiving the worst call ever.