News & Opinion

NCAA champion gets what he deserves

Life ain’t fair, or so the saying goes, and golf does an excellent job in reminding us of that. You want equity? Go see a financial adviser. You want a reward for all that time you spent hitting balls? Practice more, hotshot. And remember: You owe the game a whole lot more than the game owes you.

Some injustices can be fixed, however, which is why the boss called the other day. If the reigning U.S. Amateur champion is exempt for three of the four majors, he wondered, why doesn’t the winner of the NCAA men’s individual title get into any? The Asia-Pacific Amateur champ automatically qualifies for the Masters and British Open. In 2012, that happened to be 13-year-old Tianlang Guan, whose appearance at Augusta National the following spring was made memorable by the two-stroke penalty he received for slow play.

Yeah, right. Pick on the little kid while the upper-class snails gather for a picnic on the sixth tee. Guan still made the cut and now attends the University of Arizona, where he could win the NCAAs by 20 strokes and not get into the Masters without a ticket.

These days, it’s not so much what you’ve done but where you’ve won. Golf’s grow-the-game mandate clearly has influenced the decisions being made on major-championship eligibility. A big fat bundle of international TV revenue can go a long way toward affecting priorities, leaving one to wonder whether the Lords of the Little White Ball are forgetting our college boys.

When an editor pitches a story idea, you listen closely while knowing he’s the last one to touch your copy. And this was a good sales pitch, but I’m not buying. If anything, there are too many secondary exemptions handed out at the majors. Too many free passes given to guys not yet capable of performing on the biggest stage in the game, some of whom never have played in a standard PGA Tour event.

Of course, this opinion will not sit well with many readers. It’s a human reflex to pull for the underdog, to wrap your arms around the feel-good stories that Matt Kuchar authored as an amateur at the first two majors in 1998. Justin Rose bettered Kuchar’s achievements just a month later, finishing two strokes away from a British Open playoff at age 17, but those fairy tales are very few and have become very far between.

Fifty-seven years have passed since an amateur last posted a top-10 finish at the Masters. Ryan Moore (T-13) came fairly close in 2005. The U.S. Open usually has the most amateurs in its field because of local and sectional qualifying. Of the 20 who made it to Shinnecock Hills last year, four of them got invites.

If you play your way in, more power to you, but golf’s most important tournaments are not the place for young players to groom their skills. There are opportunities to play in big-league events during the fall, and the PGA Tour should work with tournament directors to accommodate fledgling talent. The majors? Spots in those fields are precious, which is why a fair number of recognizable names sit out two or three a year.

You could argue that No. 63 in the Official World Golf Ranking needs to play better to earn those automatic berths. It’s a fair point, but also a vulnerable one. Take a look at the list of U.S. Amateur champions since 1996, when Tiger Woods won it for a third consecutive time: Just two of the 22 have gone on to become top-tier tour pros. Kuchar and Bryson DeChambeau obviously are major-worthy, but from there, we can meet at the water cooler and debate each case individually.

Ryan Moore has had a decent pro career (five wins), but considering he was one of the most decorated amateurs of the modern era, you could call him an underachiever. Matthew Fitzpatrick is a top-50 guy who has played most of his golf on the European Tour. Jury is still out there. Same goes for Peter Uihlein and perhaps Danny Lee. At that point, the pro accomplishments of recent U.S. Amateur champs take a steep plunge.

We’re talking fringe players, plus numerous others who haven’t made it or never made it at all. Woods’ heroics popularized the U.S. Amateur to such a degree that it led some to believe it had become a factory for producing future stars. Turns out the assembly line churns out more question marks than exclamation points.

Since 1980, only four Amateur champions – Woods, Justin Leonard, Phil Mickelson and Hal Sutton – have won a major. In other words, it's been 23 years since a future major champion won a U.S. Amateur. It should come as no surprise that Mickelson, Leonard and Woods also captured NCAA individual crowns. Or that the list of collegiate champs is clearly more impressive than that of the Amateur winners, or that both lists are frequented by men whose careers went bust. So, I guess my editor was sort of right: The player who finishes atop the leaderboard at next month’s NCAAs does have a legitimate bone to pick with those Lords of the Little White Ball.

Good luck with that, fellas. Life ain’t fair, and in this instance, fairness comes in a distant second to common sense.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com