Western Amateur Preview: State's best vie for elite title
HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. – Donald Ross has confounded, as well as anointed, the game's greatest players for a century, his classic designs hosting all of the country's most prestigious championships.
One of those championships, the Western Amateur, returns to one of his routes this week at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park, a northern suburb of Chicago, a mere mile from the shores of Lake Michigan and less than 30 miles south of the Wisconsin border.
Once a traveling championship, the tournament returned to its Chicago roots in 2009 after 38 years at Point O'Woods Golf and Country Club in Michigan. In its 110 years, Ross designs have been played 17 times, including Exmoor in 1952 and 1904.
The Western Amateur is one of the top amateur tournaments in the world, along with the U.S. Amateur and the British Amateur. It is five days of competition, beginning with two rounds of stroke play followed with a cut to the low 44 and ties.
Then there is a third round of stroke play – 36 holes – with a cut to the low 16. Next, two rounds of match play to determine the final four, who square off on championship Saturday.
Wisconsin will be represented by University of Wisconsin players Thomas O'Bryan and Zach Balit, along with Mequon native Jordan Niebrugge, who will be a freshman at Oklahoma State University this fall.
"The Western is one of the best tournaments of the year and if you're not excited to be playing in then you probably shouldn't be playing," O'Bryan said. "It's one of the most prestigious amateur tournaments you can play in and I cannot wait. I am so excited."
The tournament is one of golf's most grueling tests, physically and mentally.
"It's definitely one of the tougher in the nation," said Niebrugge, who will be competing in his first tournament.
It's why the list of champions includes Tiger Woods, Justin Leonard (twice), Phil Mickelson, Chris DiMarco, Scott Verplank, Hal Sutton (twice), Curtis Strange, Ben Crenshaw, Andy North, Lanny Wadkins, Tom Weiskopf, Jack Nicklaus, Chick Evans and Francis Ouimet.
Runner-ups include Gil Morgan, Jay Haas, David Ogrin, Curt Byrum, Rocco Mediate, Craig Perks, Ben Curtis and Patrick Cantlay.
Perhaps more impressive, however, is the list of stroke play medalists who did not go on to win that year's tournament – a testament to the vagaries of match play.
Camilo Villegas (2002), Jason Gore (1993), Len Mattiace (1987), Scott Verplank (1984), Mark O'Meara (1980) and Tom Kite (1970) all ended stroke play as the No. 1 seed only to fall in the matches.
It's an impressive leaderboard, built up over 100 years of competition. What's just as special, however, is the invitation. Not all amateurs get in, especially with an ever-increasing international contingent to choose from.
"These are our major championships in amateur golf – the Western Amateur and the U.S. Amateur are the two biggest events in amateur golf and you need to play well and you want to play well," said Patrick Rodgers, the world's third-ranked amateur and a sophomore at Stanford University who will be a tournament favorite. "This is where you want to be peaking."
Once in the field, making it through stroke play can be considered an achievement in itself. In the tournament's history, 28 alumni of the Sweet 16 have gone on to win major championships. Only nine of them actually won the Western Am, however.
Players with that hole on their resume include Tom Watson, a four-time Sweet 16 participant, Corey Pavin (three times), Bob Tway (three times), Fred Couples (two times), Tom Lehman (two time) and Davis Love III (two times).
"If you get into match play, all you need to do is have a streak of holes in each round where you play really well and pick up a couple holes on someone," O'Bryan said. "If you can do that, and you get three or four up with five, six holes to play, the match is basically over and you've just gotta finish the job, make a couple of pars coming in and you've got it. That's my goal."
Despite the long odds at making match play, O'Bryan enters the tournament with confidence. The Aurora, Ill. native is coming off a tie for 26th at the highly competitive Illinois Open and even more impressively, a match-play appearance at the U.S. Amateur Public Links at the Soldier Hollow Golf Course at Wasatch Mountain State Park in Midway, Utah.
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