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Entering summer, U.S. Walker Cup team race is wide open

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The Walker Cup is less than three months away, and as the summer amateur season gets underway, the race to be on the 10-man U.S. team for the Sept. 7-8 matches at Royal Liverpool is wide open.

Here is a primer on what to expect:

Who’s out

Several top American contenders have either already turned pro or plan to do so this month, including Matthew Wolff, Justin Suh, Collin Morikawa, Will Gordon, Bryson Nimmer and Zach Bauchou. Wolff, Gordon and Nimmer were among the 16 players who participated in the Walker Cup practice session last December.

For guys like Wolff, lucrative endorsement deals and PGA Tour exemptions were too much to pass up. For others like Gordon and Nimmer, who have Mackenzie Tour status, they couldn’t surrender guaranteed starts.

“Walker Cup is a pretty big deal, but it’s not a guarantee whether you’re going to make it or not,” Nimmer said. “What happened to Sam Burns two years ago (Burns put off turning pro but didn’t make the team), that was in the back of my head when I made the decision. The safe option was just turning pro.”

Pro golf can wait

While the crop of U.S. talent certainly took a hit this month, there are several college graduates remaining amateur for the chance to play for their country.

“Three months ain’t gonna kill me,” said Texas A&M’s Chandler Phillips, the third highest-ranked American in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.

Among the list of American candidates is Georgia Southern’s Steven Fisk, who is currently the fourth highest-ranked eligible U.S. player.

Nathaniel Crosby, the 2019 U.S. Walker Cup captain, made the trip to Blessings Golf Club for the NCAA Championship to scout his potential team members. He spent much of his time there following Fisk, who won six times this past season before finishing runner-up to Wolff for the NCAA individual title.

Word was that Crosby was surprised by Fisk being left off the practice-session invite list.

“It’s nice that he wanted me there,” Fisk said. “It was a list that I felt like I might’ve been left off of, but thankfully the practice squad is different from the competition squad.”

Fisk is used to being overlooked. He’s never made a national team at any level. His swing and grip are unorthodox. He didn’t play for a big program.

“I feel like I’ve been passed over a time or two in the last couple of years,” Fisk said. “It’s not something I think about when I’m playing, but off the course it stings a little at first, but I’ve adjusted to it and learned to channel those emotions properly.”

Georgia Southern head coach Carter Collins believes the Walker Cup committee would be foolish not to select Fisk.

“He’s been overlooked by a few teams over the last couple of years and I still don’t understand why, but he keeps proving everybody wrong,” Collins said. “It’s been great motivation for him, and if that’s what makes him better, then they need to keep doing it. But deserving is the right word for Walker Cup. There’s nobody else that I would start my team with.

“He’s had an incredible year, incredible career. His match-play record is phenomenal. Why wouldn’t you want that kind of competitor on that team? I don’t care who you put him up against in the whole world, he’s going to be tough to beat.”

In addition to Phillips (No. 8 in WAGR) and Fisk (10), Stanford grads Brandon Wu (11) and Isaiah Salinda (12) are holding off on turning pro, as are Duke’s Alex Smalley (23) and Wake Forest’s Cameron Young (30).

“There’s only a select number of times that you can represent your country playing golf,” Wu said. “At the amateur level, the highest one is the Walker Cup. … It seemed like an unattainable goal back when I was a freshman or sophomore, but as it became more and more realistic, I was like, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Youth movement

Eight years ago, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Rodgers competed on the U.S. Walker Cup team as rising college freshmen. Since then, no non-college player has made the American side.

This year’s team is likely to include the youngest U.S. competitor in Walker Cup history – 17-year-old Akshay Bhatia, who will turn pro and forego college soon after the matches.

“If I can be one of those guys to contribute to this team and win it for captain Crosby, it would mean the world to me,” said Bhatia, who is ranked seventh in the world and took part in the practice session. He won the Jones Cup earlier this year and was named the AJGA Rolex Junior Player of the Year last November.

Of course, Bhatia potentially may not be the only junior on the team. Incoming Florida freshman Ricky Castillo is ranked No. 32 in the WAGR, incoming Pepperdine freshman William Mouw is ranked No. 47 and reigning U.S. Junior champion Michael Thorbjornsen is No. 52.

The rest

Rising Texas sophomore Cole Hammer is arguably the closest lock for the U.S. team.

Hammer, who was invited to the practice session, won the Azalea Amateur, U.S. Amateur Four-Ball (with Garrett Barber) and Western Amateur last summer before making the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. He won the Phil Mickelson Award as the country’s top freshman this past season and also helped the Longhorns to the NCAA final. His match-play rout of Wolff at Blessings may have sealed his place on the team.

Mid-amateur Stewart Hagestad is another safe bet to make the team. He is set to play in a third straight U.S. Open this coming week after qualifying via sectionals for the second straight year. He also is ranked 15th in the WAGR and would be the only returning member of the victorious 2017 team. (As Maverick McNealy showed two years ago, experience helps.)

Other leading candidates at the moment include practice-session invites John Augenstein (26), Trent Phillips (37), Brandon Mancheno (61) and Tyler Strafaci (70). Mid-amateurs Kevin O’Connell and Matt Parziale were also invited to the practice session, but it would be unlikely for the U.S. team to carry more than one mid-amateur.

Florida State’s John Pak (18) and Oklahoma State’s Austin Eckroat (36) weren’t invited to the practice session, but if the U.S. team was selected today, they’d likely be on it.

Tournaments to watch

While Mancheno notched the first amateur victory of the summer last week at the Dogwood Invitational, things really heat up this week with the Sunnehanna Amateur, Southwestern Amateur and Monroe Invitational, which all begin Wednesday. The Southeastern Amateur starts Tuesday.

After that, here are the notable events that Captain Crosby will likely have his eyes on:

  • Northeast Amateur, June 19-22
  • North and South Amateur, June 24-29
  • Sahalee Players, July 1-3
  • Trans-Miss Amateur, July 9-12
  • Players Amateur, July 11-14
  • Southern Amateur, July 17-20
  • Pac Coast Amateur, July 23-26
  • Palmetto Amateur, July 24-27
  • Porter Cup, July 24-27
  • Western Amateur, July 30-Aug. 3
  • U.S. Amateur, Aug. 12-18

Starts in professional events, including majors, are heavily weighed, as well.

How and when is the team determined?

The U.S. Walker Cup team will be announced in two waves. The first wave, determined after the U.S. Amateur, will include automatic selections: top three Americans in WAGR, 2019 McCormack Medal winner and the U.S. Amateur champion (if American). The second wave will be filled out by the USGA’s International Team Selection Committee and include at least one mid-amateur.