U.S. JUNIOR AMATEUR
Increased International Presence Strengthens Field
July 15, 2019 | Toledo, Ohio
By Mike Trostel, USGA
As its name implies, the U.S. Junior Amateur has been played in the United States each year since 1948, but the geographical complexion of the championship field has evolved significantly since its origins.
For the first four decades, all its champions were American and, with the exception of a few Canadians, the fields consisted of players exclusively from the United States. When Tiger Woods won his first of three Junior Amateur titles in 1991, none of the 64 players who qualified for match play were from outside the U.S.
Slowly, things began to change. In 1994, after Tiger’s run of three consecutive championship titles, Terry Noe, of the Republic of Korea, became the first foreign-born champion. In 2011, when Jordan Spieth won his second Junior Amateur in three years, six international players advanced to match play. Five years later, that number more than tripled to 19.
Part of the reason for the spike is the recent addition of an exemption category for the top 50 age-eligible players in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. In the past, a talented international player might have skipped a Junior Amateur qualifier because of the time and cost of making the trip to the United States. Now, players like Elvis Smylie and Jang Hyun Lee, who are currently based in Australia and hadn’t played a tournament in the U.S. in 2019, get to showcase their talents among the world’s best juniors.
“It’s pretty hard to come over and play a qualifier if you don’t live in the States,” said Tom McKibbin, 16, of Northern Ireland. “It was my goal at the start of the year to get in through World Ranking and it was pretty special to do that.”
McKibbin is a member of Holywood Golf Club in Northern Ireland, which also produced 2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy. McKibbin won the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley in April and has five other top-5 finishes this year.
His travel schedule has been hectic this summer, evidenced by the fact that the U.S. Junior Amateur will be his fourth consecutive week of competitive golf, each in a different country. It follows The Amateur Championship at Portmarnock in Ireland, the European Amateur in Austria and the European Boys’ Team Championship in France. Because of travel complications, McKibben was able to play only nine holes at Inverness before the first round of stroke play, but despite some fatigue, he was excited to get on the course for his first Junior Amateur experience.
“I’m coming off 10 matches in seven days in France, but I wouldn’t miss this championship,” said McKibbin. “Everything here – the range, the clubhouse, the course setup – is top-notch. You can tell this is a massive major event and you’re playing with the best.”
That sentiment was seconded by Scotland’s Connor McKinney, who arrived in Toledo after a week in San Diego for the Junior World Championships. He is one of the 32 players representing 14 countries who make up the international contingent here at Inverness.
“The way you get treated here is unlike anywhere else,” said McKinney, 17, who was the youngest medalist in the history of the Australian Amateur in 2018, “Long-term, my goal is to play on the PGA Tour. This experience gives you a taste of what that’s going to be like. It’s a chance to measure yourself against the best on a tough setup.”
For Joshua Greer, 18, of Australia, the significance of playing in the U.S. Junior Amateur has struck him each morning when he visited his locker. Greer and the other 155 players have been greeted with personalized letters from some of the game’s greats who have connections to Inverness and the Junior Amateur.
When players registered for the championship, they received a letter from eight-time USGA champion Jack Nicklaus, who played in his first of 44 consecutive U.S. Opens at Inverness in 1957, at age 17. On Sunday, they received a note from Tom Watson, who shot 66 at Inverness to open the 2003 U.S. Senior Open, making him the first player in history to lead the U.S. Open and U.S. Senior Open after 18 holes in the same year. On Monday, before the first round of stroke play, they got a note from three-time U.S. Junior Amateur champion Tiger Woods, the only player to successfully defend his title in this championship.
“What they did with the lockers was fabulous,” said Greer, who calls Woods his favorite golfer. “It gave me goosebumps. The whole week is how I’d imagine a major championship would feel.”
One lucky player will get the chance to experience just that. This week’s champion earns an exemption into the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club.
Mike Trostel is the senior content producer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.