U.S. AMATEUR
Majors, Tour Events Don't Faze Amateur Golf's Best August 16, 2015 | Olympia Fields, Ill. By Stuart Hall

Jon Rahm, who enters the week No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, notched a top-5 finish in a PGA Tour event back in January. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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In the same mid-winter week that Austin Connelly won the Jones Cup Invitational in a playoff in Sea Island, Ga., he was keeping an eye on the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, two time zones away.

That’s where fellow amateur Jon Rahm was in contention, shooting four rounds under par. He tied for fifth place, three shots back of champion Brooks Koepka.

Connelly could not help but keep an eye out, given that he and Rahm were in close proximity to each other in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™.

“When you see someone you have played against quite a bit and they go out [on Tour] and have success, it definitely motivates you,” said Connelly, 18, of Irving, Texas, who is ranked No. 13 in the world. “In the back of your mind, you’re thinking I’ve played and beaten that guy. It’s another confirmation that you’re one step closer to your goal.

”For the amateur game’s top players, that ultimate goal is to eventually ply their trade on the PGA and European tours. This week’s 115th U.S. Amateur Championship field at Olympia Fields Country Club features 16 players who have already played either a major championship or a PGA Tour event this year.

They have all watched as their contemporaries are making their professional marks. Newly turned 22, Jordan Spieth is blazing that trail as the world’s No. 2 player, with a couple of 2015 major championship wins already to his name. Fellow 22-year-olds Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger are among the top 50 on the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup points list, while 23-year-old Patrick Rodgers is on the verge of nailing down his PGA Tour card for next season.

Rahm, 20, of Spain, is the world’s top-ranked amateur, and he believes a movement is afoot.

“There’s obviously a difference between the great guys and us, but it’s getting really close,” said Rahm, who won the 2014 Spanish Amateur and was medalist at last September’s World Amateur Team Championship in Japan, breaking Jack Nicklaus’ 72-hole scoring record, set in 1960. “The gap is not as big as it used to be.

“There are tiny little differences. Maybe your ball striking is at that level, but the short game isn’t or your putting may be at that level, but you need to work more your on ball striking. Just little things.”

Rahm’s finish in Phoenix on Feb. 1 was just the beginning for those in the top amateur ranks.

So far in 2015, 18 different amateurs have placed in either a major or a PGA Tour event.

While no amateur has won the U.S. Open since John Goodman in 1933, six made the cut this year at Chambers Bay, the highest total since six made the 36-hole cut in 1966.   

A month later in the Open Championship at St. Andrews, American Jordan Niebrugge was low amateur with a sixth-place finish. Also, the Republic of Ireland’s Paul Dunne shared the 54-hole lead before tying for 30th.

That same week, Robby Shelton tied for third in the PGA Tour’s Barbarsol Championship, five shots back of champion Scott Piercy.

Shelton’s finish was the first top-three finish for an amateur on the PGA Tour since Phil Mickelson won the Phoenix Open in 1991. It also marked just the 18th time an amateur finished in the top three of a PGA Tour event since 1940.

Shelton,19, of Wilmer, Ala., believes such statistics will soon be updated more frequently.

“There are going to be more top fives and top 10s in Tour events,” Shelton said. “A win is waiting to happen. We work just as hard as they do and going to school is about the only thing holding us back.” 

Connelly agrees.

“The gap is definitely closing,” he said. “You see a big difference, in my opinion, between the younger guys versus the older guys. There is a different style of play.

“It really seems like [the older] guys are out there playing for paychecks every week and I feel like they are a lot more cautious than the amateur and the younger guys. And I think that’s what has enabled some of the younger guys to have that success, because if you’re coming out and firing on all cylinders and playing aggressive and have things go your way for a week, there is a good chance you’re going to contend or win if you have the skill set.”

Along with the opportunities available to today’s amateurs, the support system is more robust. In addition to swing coaches, nutritionists, personal trainers and mental coaches are available.

“It’s a new day and age,” Connelly said. “Before, golfers were golfers and now I think they are more well-rounded athletes as a whole. All the things are in place for some of these top players that allow them to really grow their game and improve at the fastest rate.”

Amateur success is also being seen on the European Tour. Sweden’s Marcus Kinhult, 19, who is No. 3 in the world and in this week’s U.S. Amateur field, held the 36-hole lead at this year’s Nordea Masters and contended at the Omega European Masters. He tied for 33rd and 10th, respectively.  

At this year’s AT&T Byron Nelson Championship and RBC Canadian Open, Connelly recorded a pair of MDFs, having made the 36-hole cut, but not the 54-hole second cut. The experience still was beneficial.

“I gain quite a bit from it because in my mind I’ve always felt, especially the last couple of years, that I can compete with those guys and I’m very close,” Connelly said. “It’s one thing to think it, though, and another thing to go out and validate it.”

Connelly said the differences between the two levels are subtle. While the course setups are frequently more difficult, compensating for the atmosphere is an adjustment. A few times in his professional appearances, he had to back off shots because of gallery noise, something that is not common at the amateur level.

As for being nervous? Shelton chuckled.

“I wasn’t nervous at all,” said Shelton of being in contention. “I figured, what did I have to lose.”

The answer is nothing, and the day of an amateur winning again on Tour – or even perhaps in a major – is coming.

“The day will come soon,” Connelly said. “We just don’t know who or when.”

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.

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