U.S. AMATEUR FOUR-BALL
Mid-Amateurs Banking on Experience in Four-Ball Format
May 19, 2016 | Mamaroneck, N.Y.
By Bill Fields
For Scott Harvey and Todd Mitchell, a pair of 37-year-olds, there likely were more words spoken than strokes taken on the putting green of Winged Foot Golf Club prior to a morning practice round, two days before the start of the 2nd U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship. Harvey and Mitchell, partners again after reaching the semifinals last year, were catching up with each other and also with peers – and there was no shortage of them.
Of the 256 players (128 sides) who will tee off Saturday in the first of two stroke play rounds, 75 percent (192) are 25 or older, the age requirement for the U.S. Mid-Amateur. Harvey won that championship in 2014 and another Four-Ball competitor, Nathan Smith, also 37, has won it four times (2003, 2009, 2010, 2012) before teaming in 2015 with Todd White, 48, to win the inaugural U.S. Amateur Four-Ball a year ago at The Olympic Club.
From Jordan Spieth to the dozens of young faces consistently populating professional leader boards, elite golf might seem as if it is getting younger all the time. Yet at Winged Foot, the average age of the players who will try to solve A.W. Tillinghast’s difficult and highly regarded East and West courses is 32.24.
But will there be majority rule? Do the more experienced golfers have an edge in the better-ball format?
“I think so,” said Randy Haag, at 57 the fourth-oldest player in the field. “There is a lot of strategy involved. Playing an individual event is one thing, but in this, partners have to make adjustments. But the young guys are pretty confident; they just get up and hit their driver. They might be more prone to making some team bogeys by being aggressive. But let’s be realistic: The cream usually rises to the top. Strategy is great, but you still have to hit the shots.”
The conventional wisdom is that older golfers play more four-ball and could use that familiarity to their advantage. “Day in, day out, that’s what we do – two guys playing two guys for a drink or whatever,” Harvey said. “We have some experience.”
But one of the younger teams – Houston natives Cole Hammer, 16, and Walker Lee, 18 – insist much of the golf they play back home at Champions Golf Club prepares them for this week.
“All I do at Champions is pretty much best-ball,” said Walker. “I play a lot with Cole, but we’re usually on opposing teams. It’s going to be fun to play it in a real tournament.”
The duo got a taste of four-ball competition in February in the South Texas Four-Ball, as well as a bit of education in how to approach this championship.
“We figured out we need to play our own game, like we’re playing in a regular stroke-play event,” said Hammer, who was the third-youngest to play in a U.S. Open when he competed at Chambers Bay last year. “We got too wrapped up in what the other person was doing and tried to hit some shots that we normally don’t try.”
Whether a partnership’s approach is heavily collaborative or laissez faire, compatibility is crucial.
“It’s great to be part of a team and share the enthusiasm with a friend when things are going well,” said Mitchell. “It’s a lot of fun to share the competition with someone you like and have a lot of fun with.”
Teammates on the golf team at the University of California-Santa Barbara, Willy Moffly and Zach Smith haven’t played much four-ball, but the 20-year-olds have played plenty of golf together in college practices, which they hope is a strength this week.
“We play together pretty much every day,” Moffly said. “More important than playing this format a lot, it’s key to know your partner’s game really well.”
Moffly and Smith made a point of playing a four-ball round in California earlier this week before traveling east.
“Fired a nice little 64 on a course we know,” said Smith, who doesn’t put much stock in how anyone’s age is going to matter at Winged Foot.” This course is going to separate the good players, rather than the old from the young.”
Patrick Christovich, a 37-year-old from New Orleans partnering with Canadian Garrett Rank, 28, knows the younger players in the field have prepared a bit differently than he has. Christovich is the father of David, 3, and Jackson, 1, and his older son is already interested in golf.
“Honestly, most of my practice time consists of being with David on the putting green or chasing him around the backyard as he hits balls,” Christovich said. “That’s a lot of it.”
This week is just a different kind of fun.
Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer who contributes regularly to USGA websites.