News & Opinion

Augusta offers peek at likely Walker foes

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Monday at the Masters begins one of the most anticipated weeks on the golf calendar.

Two college freshmen, Texas’ Cole Hammer and Wake Forest’s Alex Fitzpatrick, hope their futures include walking inside the ropes and plying their trade at some point at Augusta National Golf Club. Today, they will have to be content with walking outside the ropes as a benefit of playing at the recent Augusta Haskins Award Invitational (scores).

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Texas freshman Cole Hammer, building on a big amateur season, has been a force in college and likely will land a Walker Cup spot this year.

Held on the weekend before the Masters, the Haskins is contested at Forest Hills Golf Club, about four miles from Augusta National. The two-day annual event attracts some of the best fields in golf. This year offered a glimpse of two players, Hammer and Fitzpatrick, who likely will represent their countries at the 47th Walker Cup at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in September. The teams will be finalized this summer.

Hammer, from Houston, and Fitzpatrick, from Sheffield, England, were invited to their countries' respective practice sessions. Hammer, who stands sixth in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and is the No. 3 American, is virtually assured a spot. Fitzpatrick, ranked 44th in the world, also appears to be a likely Walker Cup participant as the fourth-highest-ranked player among the Great Britain and Ireland contingent.

Hammer completed a dream amateur season in 2018, teaming with Garrett Barber to win the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball, then winning the Western Amateur and making the semifinals of the U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Amateur. He also represented the U.S. at the World Amateur Team Championship in Ireland, where the Americans finished runner-up.

So, Hammer had his game ready for prime time when he enrolled at Texas in the fall. He has emerged as the Longhorns’ top player, posting victories at the Southern Highlands Collegiate and the Lamkin Grips SD Classic.

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Wake Forest freshman Alex Fitzpatrick adjusts to the college game and the United States as he aims for a Walker Cup berth.

“Being on a team and figuring out how to manage my time has helped my game a lot,” Hammer said after he tied for fifth at the Haskins on Sunday. “It’s been nice to be around a group of guys that push me every day, because I didn’t have that growing up in high school.”

Fitzpatrick tied for 16th here as his Demon Deacons, paced by medalist Cameron Young’s seven-stroke victory, won the Haskins by three. Fitzpatrick has been involved in golf since a very young age, and he caddied for older brother Matthew during his 2013 U.S. Amateur victory.

Wake Forest coach Jerry Haas said the Fitzpatrick brothers remain close. Matthew, a five-time winner on the European Tour who will be playing in the Masters, watched most of his brother’s round Sunday.

Haas believes that as Matthew goes, so will Alex go, feeding off his brother’s success.

“My game was pretty good coming into Wake after my fifth-place finish at the U.S. Amateur,” said Alex Fitzpatrick, a 3-and-2 loser to Hammer in the quarterfinals at Pebble Beach. “But obviously there were a few flaws in my game. I drove it really badly; putting was not so good. But being at Wake, I’ve had a chance to work on all aspects of my game, and now driving is one of my stronger points of my game. Putting is still on and off, but it’s on the up.”

When Fitzpatrick was 13 and on his brother’s bag, the joke was that he could get it up and down out of trash can. Haas specifically mentioned Fitzpatrick’s short-game prowess when discussing the freshman’s game.

“He works very hard and has a world-class short game,” Haas said. “I’ve been around a long time. He picks ’em off these muddy little tight lies like its nothing, so he’s got a chance to be very good, but he needs to eat better; he needs to take care of himself.”

Wake Forest, which won by three strokes over South Carolina and six over Texas, likely will see the Longhorns again. NCAA regional play will be in early May, followed by the national championship in late May at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark. Fitzpatrick and Hammer also will compete in many of the same amateur events this summer before meeting at Royal Liverpool on Sept. 7-8.

“It’s something I’ve been aiming for a long time,” Fitzpatrick said. “Hopefully, my golf stays the same and improves throughout the year, but that’s the overall goal, playing with your team from home. Playing against the Americans is always good fun.”

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli