HOYLAKE, England – When Jack Nicklaus won his 18th and final major championship at the 1986 Masters, the focus was on the Golden Bear and his sixth green jacket.
The same week proved to be special for 10 amateurs who competed at the Masters, some because of their participation on the 1985 U.S. Walker Cup team.
One of them, career amateur Bob Lewis Jr., would go on to compete in seven Masters and captain the 2003 and 2005 U.S. Walker Cup teams. For most other top amateurs, just the potential of playing in the Masters is the only reason why they wait to turn professional.
© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley (right), with Jennifer Kupcho, the winner of the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur in April, could elevate the Walker Cup by restoring Masters exemptions for the American amateurs.
If they are fortunate enough to get into the final match of the U.S. Amateur or win the British Amateur, Asia-Pacific, Latin America or U.S. Mid-Amateur, they receive an invitation from Augusta National Golf Club to play in what is widely regarded as the most prestigious event in golf.
For decades, the U.S. Walker Cup team was invited to participate on even-numbered years at the Masters, along with the U.S. World Amateur team members and other select amateurs. It all changed in 1989. What used to be a playground for amateurs, with as many as 16 in the event, was reduced to five by the Masters committee.
The committee also dropped the World Amateur teams as well as the semifinalists at the U.S. Amateur, partially replacing them with the U.S. Mid-Amateur and U.S. Public Links champions.
I’m providing this history lesson for one reason: As I sit in the media center at Royal Liverpool, site of this week’s Walker Cup, and look at a list of players whom most golf fans don’t know, I wonder whether amateurs would wait to turn pro if the Walker Cup exemption existed today.
Would Americans Matthew Wolff or Collin Morikawa have put their professional careers on hold this year? I think so. Accomplished golfers would be willing to forgo turning professional if the carrot of playing in the Masters loomed on the horizon.
Of course, looking back, Wolff punched his ticket to Augusta for April when he won the 3M Open in only his third start as a professional. Morikawa also is well on his way. In his sixth start as a professional, he won the Barracuda Championship, though it didn’t come with a Masters invitation because it’s an opposite-field event. He has risen to 86th in the Official World Golf Ranking and might play his way into Augusta anyway.
Clearly, it’s not Augusta National’s responsibility to create better teams for the U.S. in international events such as the Walker Cup.
With the Augusta National Women’s Amateur now part of the pre-Masters festivities and the organization’s participation in the Asia-Pacific and Latin America amateurs, the club seemingly has done its share for amateur golf. But, if the Walker Cuppers were given a spot every other year, it would be such a boost to the amateur game.
In countless interviews, players talk about waiting to turn pro until after the Masters. The power of Augusta National is intoxicating to young golfers, so why not allow them to drink from the cup of the late Bobby Jones, an Augusta National co-founder and the greatest amateur golfer?
It’s likely a pipe dream to think that the Walker Cuppers could regain an exemption, but considering the Masters’ value to the amateur game, it seems appropriate to raise the question.
Let’s face it: When Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley, himself a former U.S. Amateur champion, announced before the 2018 Masters that a women’s event was coming to Augusta National beginning in 2019, the room was full of dropped jaws. This proposal actually would be less surprising and fitting for how amateurs are revered in Augusta history.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli