News & Opinion

It’s a Golden moment for U.S. Amateur

Think of the U.S. Amateur’s long history, stretching back to 1895, and one unmistakable and not-at-all surprising theme emerges: Golfers from California know how to handle themselves in the nation’s oldest tournament.

This extends beyond Tiger Woods, a three-time U.S. Amateur champion. Also consider past winners such as Lawson Little and Gene Littler. Or Craig Stadler and John Cook and Mark O’Meara. Or Nathaniel Crosby and Phil Mickelson and Ricky Barnes. Or, only two years ago, Bryson DeChambeau.

And now another large wave of talented players emerges from the Golden State, ready to chase the Havemeyer Trophy. 

This is not to predict a California golfer will win this week’s 117th U.S. Amateur at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif. (with stroke-play qualifying also at nearby Bel-Air). The Amateur is a daunting mountain to climb, with 312 players winnowed to 64 in stroke play, which began Monday (scores: http://bit.ly/2wWNUN6). Even then, the champion must navigate six rounds of match play, no easy chore. 

Still, the field includes an impressive California contingent: 53 players are from the state, played college golf there or both. 

Maverick McNealy, a former Stanford standout and the world’s No. 2-ranked amateur, headlines the group and brings a distinctive back story. McNealy grew up in Portola Valley, practically in the shadow of Stanford’s campus, and he joined the historically powerful Cardinal as an unheralded recruit.

His tale includes other unconventional twists. First, he’s the son of tech titan Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. This afforded young Maverick many advantages during childhood, as he readily acknowledged.

Another curious tidbit: McNealy was more into hockey than golf as a kid. He played for the San Jose Junior Sharks and learned how to take a ferocious check into the boards before he learned how to conquer the anxiety of a 4-foot par putt.

None of this prevented McNealy, 21, from blossoming into a decorated amateur at Stanford – first-team All-American, winner of the Haskins, Hogan and Nelson awards, the Mark H. McCormack Medal and Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

All that and it remains no slam dunk that McNealy will turn pro after the Sept. 9-10 Walker Cup, which also will be in California, at Los Angeles Country Club. He seems to be leaning toward a career on the course, but he’s also contemplating a business career, with golf as a side gig. (He majored in management science and engineering at Stanford. Translation: He’s really smart.) 

As McNealy ponders his future, and prepares for his fourth U.S. Amateur start, several other skilled California golfers eye a chance to sparkle in their home state. Among the most prominent are Collin Morikawa, a two-time All-American at Cal and the world’s No. 5-ranked amateur. Morikawa grew up near Los Angeles.

Also worth watching this week are Sacramento native Cameron Champ, who burst onto the scene with his tie for 32nd in the U.S. Open and has climbed to No. 8 in the world; Sean Crocker, a 2015 U.S. Amateur semifinalist from Westlake Village by way of USC (at No. 13 in the ranking); and Newport Beach’s Stewart Hagestad, a USC alumnus and the 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion.

Ron Kroichick has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2005. He also is a regular contributor to NCGA Golf, the Northern California Golf Association’s magazine. E-mail: r.kroichick@comcast.net; Twitter: @ronkroichick