SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – After wrapping up a post-match interview with Golf Channel Sunday afternoon on the 18th green at the National Golf Links of America, Justin Thomas shook hands with reporter Steve Burkowski and shouted, “That’s my last time as an am!”
Then he got a hug from his mother and father, and tears welled in his eyes. Anyone could see how much this meant to him, this week, this win and this experience in the Walker Cup.
Thomas is one of four players who competed in the 44th Walker Cup who will turn pro on Monday. All four – Thomas and Max Homa from the USA and Kevin Phelan and Neil Raymond of Great Britain & Ireland – waited to take the next step in their golf careers until after playing in this prestigious event that began in 1922 at this same venue.
“It’s been a truly unbelievable and unforgettable week,” said Thomas, 20, of Goshen, Ky., who earlier this year helped the University of Alabama win the NCAA Division I title. “The memories we made and the friendships we made are something that means more to me than anything. I’m grateful I had a chance to do this. It’s a real honor.”
Asked if it was worth the wait, Thomas replied simply: “Absolutely. It’s the way you want to go out as an amateur.”
“Tomorrow is a big day. And it’s a weird day. I have no idea what to expect,” said Homa, 22, of Valencia, Calif., who won the NCAA individual title competing for the University of California-Berkeley. “I was talking to Justin about it last night, and as much as we are looking forward to what’s going on in the future, it’s not as exciting as what we are doing right now. I can’t even tell you how important this is to me. This is huge. It’s the reason I wanted to stay an amateur and I’ve really enjoyed every minute of it from the standpoint of the competition and being a part of this team.”
Phelan, from Ireland, and Raymond, from England, expressed similar sentiments. They said they were looking forward to the challenge of joining the professional ranks but first wanted a Walker Cup on their resumes.
“I can tell you that this was more important to me than anything in my career to this point,” said Raymond, 27. “Mixed emotions about it all. It’s an interesting time for me; quite excited about what the future holds. This is something I’ve always wanted to do, and grateful that I could do it. It’s going to help me in what I try to do going forward. I’m a little bit later to this than most guys, so I appreciate it all quite a lot.”
Redemption for Smith, White
USA Captain Jim Holtgrieve wanted two mid-amateur players (25 and older) to represent the USA at the Walker Cup. At the National, Nathan Smith, 35, and Todd White, 45, played key roles in the USA’s victory.
“My two mid-ams got us the last two points [to clinch the Match],” said Holtgrieve, who shared a long hug with Smith on the 15th green after Smith’s win over Nathan Kimsey. “I’m just so happy that it’s something the USGA allowed us to do, because it’s not just about winning, but about developing the game and about relationships. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
White and Smith were ecstatic about their contributions.
“I felt a lot of pressure. I know that Todd was feeling the same way,” Smith admitted. “It really doesn’t get any better than this.
White, 45, a high school history teacher, said the chance to play for his country in the Walker Cup was “an experience that exceeded all of my expectations.
“It’s been an amazing experience, and it’s a great lesson to take back to the kids in my classroom that hard work pays off,” White added. “I busted my butt to get here, and to have this opportunity is beyond special. It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been incredibly rewarding and not just playing, but watching what has happened, seeing the fans here … just the whole thing. It has superseded anything I could have ever imagined.”
Both Smith and White would welcome yet another turn, but neither could predict if they would be in the running for a spot when the USA goes to Royal Lytham & St. Annes in Lancashire, England, for the 2015 Match.
“We’ll take it year by year,” Smith said. “We’ll just see how it goes. But I would definitely want to play again.”
Motivation for 2015?
It’s a good bet that Matthew Fitzpatrick of England will still be eligible for the Walker Cup when the competition is renewed at Royal Lytham. Fitzpatrick, who recently turned 19, begins classes at Northwestern University later this month and would be a college junior in 2015.
“Hopefully I am back there in two years and I’m sure it will be another great experience,” said Fitzpatrick, the 2013 U.S. Amateur champion who also was low amateur at this year’s British Open and the runner-up at the English Amateur. “I’ve just got to keep playing and get through college.”
Fitzpatrick, who has stated he wants to get an education before embarking on a professional career, was set to fly to Chicago on Monday and arrive on the Evanston, Ill., campus to fill out paperwork. The Wildcats also have their first fall tournament at Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club on Sept. 13-15.
“Apparently I have a million forms to sign,” said Fitzpatrick. “After that, I will be good to go.”
Homa Scores an Ace
Max Homa lost to Kevin Phelan in his singles match Sunday, but he did have one highlight, making a hole-in-one on the par-3 sixth hole. Homa hit a 52-degree wedge from 115 yards that hit past the hole and spun in.
“I flushed it, and I had to hit it hard, too,” Homa said. “My match didn’t matter as long as we won, and we did. It was about the team today. Still, a hole-in-one, it’s another memory to take with me from this week. It’s pretty cool.”