News & Opinion

U.S. Four-Ball shines light on team golf

TEQUESTA, Fla. – When the U.S. Golf Association decided to discontinue its U.S. Amateur Public Links men’s and women’s championships four years ago, there was a loud cry that the organization had lost touch with the “everyman” golfer. 

But the U.S. Amateur Public Links, or APL, established in 1922 as a championship for golfers from public venues, had lost its way. A spot in the following year’s Masters hovering as the ultimate carrot for males, and there were entrants who weren’t passing the eye test as true “public course” players. In 2014, in Kansas, the championship was staged one final time. Byron Meth won at Sand Creek Station in Kansas, and then the lights were turned out, ending a 92-year run. 

Sometimes change can be good. In this case, a better championship was born, with the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball, first played in 2015 at Olympic Club, capably filling the void. The fourth playing of the event wrapped up Wednesday at Jupiter Hills Club, with two of the country’s top juniors, Cole Hammer and Garrett Barber, prevailing over Marc Dull and Chip Brooke, two Florida mid-ams who first met in the caddie yard (results). But the tenor of this championship extends beyond its quality champions. 

Cole Hammer (left) and Garrett Barber, both 18, will start their freshman college seasons this fall as USGA team champions.

Cole Hammer (left) and Garrett Barber, both 18, will start their freshman college seasons this fall as USGA team champions.

In all, 256 players (128 teams) took part in the event, played mostly beneath rainy, gray skies. The format is good old-fashioned four-ball, with two-man teams competing the way so many Joe Six-Pack golfers do on the weekend. As in, “Hey, Pards, I just hit my drive into the trees ... you got this hole?” 

“I love team golf,” said Nick Price, the three-time major champion and former Presidents Cup International team captain who lives near Jupiter Hills and now serves on the USGA’s executive committee. “We don’t play enough of it.”  

Fortunately, golf appears to be trying. The PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic in New Orleans has experienced an uptick in popularity since transitioning to a two-man team event in 2017, luring four top-5 players from the OWGR last month during a week when many stars used to stay home. In July 2019, the LPGA will add its first official two-woman team event, the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational in Michigan. The Zurich and the Dow utilize four-ball (better-ball) and foursomes (alternate-shot) formats. 

“This is one of the favorite events we get to play,” Frankie Capan III said at the Four-Ball. He and Shuai Ming “Ben” Wong won the 2017 U.S. Four-Ball Championship at Pinehurst No. 2, and will be part of the USGA's Celebration of Champions that will kick off the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in a few weeks. Both players are now 18, taking their last high school classes last week. Capan will play at Alabama in the fall; Wong will play at Southern Methodist. 

Mix in Wednesday’s newest champions – Hammer, a Texas commit who qualified for the 2015 U.S. Open at age 15, and Barber, the 2018 Jones Cup champion who is bound for LSU, and the championship featured some of the nation’s top juniors. Hammer-Barber likely won't get a chance to defend. By design, because the event is played during the NCAA’s postseason, many top college players do not compete.

Beyond the stars, the championship attracted a diverse field. There were four sets of brothers, a couple of players in their 60s (one all-60s team qualified but withdrew before the event). There were lots of mid-ams, many of them reinstated after trying the professional game. Two former college roommates from Seattle University (Patrick Sato and Kyle Cornett) made it into the semifinals. 

One interesting trend at this year’s Four-Ball: teammates who not only competed side by side but competed “against” each other in the process. John Sawin, a former Pennsylvania Amateur champion and talented mid-am who is vice president and director of golf at Pebble Beach, already had lost a hole in the Round of 16 to Barber and Hammer when he then watched one of them carefully mark his ball and knock in a second par at the ninth hole at the Hills Course. 

Why? His inner detective made him stop and ask: Are you two also playing a match against each another?

They were, stating that they had been inspired by Americans Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth, who have done the same with success in Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup matches. Hammer and Barber proved to be the class of the field, and if each could beat the other, well ... 

Once they went with that plan, they came out firing in Round 2 of stroke-play qualifying, shooting 7-under 28 on their first nine.

Garrett Rank, a three-time Canadian Mid-Amateur champion, and his partner, Patrick Christovich of New Orleans, tried the same approach, qualifying fourth and eventually losing in the quarters. 

“I think we just kind of both are trying to kick each other’s teeth in, and playing against each other, to be honest,” said Rank, an NHL referee by trade. “At the end of the day, if Pat makes a birdie, that’s one for me, too.”

Despite losing, Rank and Christovich, semifinalists in 2016 and 2017, were happy to be teamed together again, enjoying their week as so many of the competitors do. 

Sawin and his partner, Tug Maude, plunked down into two leather seats in the air-conditioned locker room, enjoying a cold beverage after losing to Hammer and Barber early Tuesday. Sawin now lives in California and Maude in Atlanta, but they’ve known each other since they were juniors at iconic Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania. They’d immensely enjoyed their week together in Florida in their first Four-Ball, achieving their goal in being one of 32 teams to get to match play. 

“Are you kidding me?” Sawin asked. “To be able to play in a national championship with your best golfing buddy? That’s a dream.”

The Four-Ball moves to Bandon Dunes in Oregon next spring. Another week for team golf.

Said Maude, “This has been a blast. We can’t wait.”  

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62