U.S. AMATEUR
Perth Golfers a Rising Presence in Amateur Game August 14, 2016 | BLOOMFIELD Township, Mich. By Stuart Hall

U.S. Junior Amateur champion Min Woo Lee is one of several recent standout golfers from Perth, in Western Australia. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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When Min Woo Lee shot an 8-under 64 to lead the opening round of the Western Australia PGA Championship in October, fellow amateur Curtis Luck took notice.

That Luck, 20, two years Lee’s elder, posted a respectable 72 mattered little at the time.

“It kind of slapped me around a bit,” Luck said. “I remember sitting in the clubhouse and thinking to myself: ‘What are you doing, mate? You need to sort it out.’”

That competitive spirit is not limited to Lee and Luck, but is a pervasive mindset among golfers in Western Australia. That also helps explain why Perth, located on the country’s southwestern coast, is well represented at this week’s 116th U.S. Amateur Championship at Oakland Hills Country Club.

In addition to Lee, who won the U.S. Junior Amateur last month at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn., and Luck, Karl Vilips also has ties to Perth. Vilips, 14, is the youngest player in the field. Two other  Australians, Harrison Endycott and Cameron Davis, are also in the field.

“I just think we’re really hard workers,” Lee said. “Because our facilities and programs are not as good as the eastern (Australian) regions like Melbourne and Sydney, I think that makes us have to put more work into each aspect of the game. And each time we have a session, it makes us want to give 100 percent and not muck around.”

If the present Aussie trio is a small sample size to explain the emerging presence of golf in Western Australia, then consider the exploits of their peers.

Lee’s sister, Minjee, won the 2012 U.S. Girls’ Junior and has won twice on the LPGA Tour. Brady Watt and Oliver Goss were a semifinalist and runner-up, respectively, in the 2013 U.S. Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., and have since turned professional.

Two weeks ago in the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Rolling Green Golf Club in Springfield, Pa., Hannah Green advanced to the quarterfinals. And Fred Lee – no relation to Min Woo Lee – also reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Junior Amateur.

Through the years, Australia has produced a bevy of major champions – Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle, Karrie Webb, Jan Stephenson, Jim Ferrier, David Graham, Greg Norman, Steve Elkington, Geoff Ogilvy, Adam Scott and Jason Day – but none of them hailed from Western Australia.

At No. 7 in the WAGR, 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur semifinalist Curtis Luck, of Perth, is the highest-ranked Australian. (USGA/Jonathan Ernst)

Luck, the highest Australian in the World Amateur Golf RankingTM at No. 7, takes pride in what his Australian predecessors have done, but admits he has been more influenced by the lesser-known Brett Rumford. Rumford, 39, of Perth, is a five-time winner on the PGA European Tour. Luck won this year’s WA Open, an Australasian PGA Tour event, after finishing runner-up in 2015.

“I don’t think the Jason Days, Greg Normans and Adam Scotts have as big of an impact on us as they do on the kids on the east coast,” said Luck, who reached the 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur semifinals. “We just feel like we have to step up to compete, even if that’s not actually the case. We’re just ridiculously competitive.

“We’ve also got some really good coaches back home and they really drive it into us how hard we have to work if we’re going to make it professionally. I think we’re starting to see it pay off. We haven’t produced a massive bunch of players, but over the past few years we produced about eight or so high-quality players.”

In addition to the work ethos, the Western Australians believe odd factors such as travel and coastal winds have contributed to their successes.

Vilips, making his first USGA championship appearance, spent 10 years in Perth and now attends Saddlebrook Preparatory School in Wesley Chapel, Fla. Vilips generally travels to tournaments unaccompanied by his father, who remains in Australia.

“I’ve learned to be a lot more independent,” said Vilips, who won a pair of American Junior Golf Association tournaments in 2015 and was an alternate for this year’s U.S. Junior Amateur. “I don’t know about a lot of 14-year-olds, but I know if I was flying by myself last year, I definitely would have lost something. I’ve had to become a lot more mature having to do things on my own.”

Already in 2016, Vilips has traveled within Florida and to North Carolina, Georgia, Connecticut and Illinois. Lee, even with funding from Golf Australia, traveled to six tournaments around Australia in the year’s first 15 weeks. In April, he flew to Georgia for the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley and returned to Australia. Since May, Lee has played in Scottsdale, Ariz.; San Diego, Calif., Ooltewah and now this week outside of Detroit.

Such travels have exposed the players to varied courses and conditions. Lee, No. 92 in the WAGR, said after playing at home, he is prepared for nearly any situation.

“The courses and the weather in Perth are pretty tough. I think we’re one of the windiest cities in the world,” said Lee. “If we do face a situation on any other course, we know how to maneuver our swings to suit the course and condition. I think it's a big advantage.”

This week may reveal how just how big.

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

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