I love golf, particularly the amateur game. I read GolfWeek cover to cover growing up tracking the best players around the country. These days, I’m into it for a couple of reasons. One, there is a rock-solid crop of amateur golfers coming along. Two, the cluster that is LIV golf and the accompanying stripping of the emperor’s clothes has taken a lot of the fun out and put a little fun into the professional game.
I look forward to the NCAA tournament every year because I’m reminded during every TV timeout (between those genius Capital One ads) that the Masters is coming up about as soon as CBS finishes playing that song that makes all the grown men cry. And let’s face it, there’s something about that particular tournament, a fine combination of Gulfstreams and $1.50 pimento cheese sandwiches, that makes all things seem possible.
I was looking over the field of amateurs for this year’s Masters. Honest to God, I’m blown away by all this talent. The best amateur in the world hasn’t made the field yet for Augusta. But the rest of the pack of amateur golfers is probably hanging out at Sea Pines or Ponte Vedra, tuning up for the 2023 PGA season—starting with the Masters.
Amateur golfers have a long and storied history at Augusta, starting with Jack Nicklaus in 1960 with his first tour of the course. Okay, I’m wrong. Bobby Jones is the amateur’s amateur, an unbelievably well-educated (Georgia Tech, Harvard, Emory Law) Atlanta attorney who pretty much ran the table of major tournaments in his 20s.
Jones won the US Open, the Open Championship (British Open)—two times for each—and the US Amateur three times. He won a Grand Slam in 1930. He wasn’t a pro golfer, but he wasn’t above placing the occasional bet on himself—as in 1930 when he bet he’d win the Grand Slam and netted himself a tidy $60,000. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s just over a cool million.
Jones wanted a world-class course near Atlanta, so in 1931, he and some buddies bought an old plant nursery in Augusta, and the rest of that story is history.
Anyway, Nicklaus told reporters in 1960 he had as good a chance as any of the pros to win (he didn’t). But you can forgive his hubris since he almost won the Open later that summer.
Amateur Hour at the Masters
Even now, the amateur golfers invited to Augusta get to live the dream. They stay in the clubhouse (at the Crows Nest, a glorified college dorm, but still) for the week. Then they go to the opening dinner and play the first two rounds with past champions. If they make the cut, they get to keep playing with the big boys. That used to be a fairly rare event. But in 2022, four amateurs made the cut—Japan’s Takumi Kanaya, US Amateur champ and Oklahoma State player Viktor Hovland, Mexico’s and Latin American Amateur winner Alvaro Ortiz, and UCLA’s Devon Bling (who was a tender 19 at the time).
This year, six amateur golfers are coming to Augusta, either by winning a qualifying tournament or getting a special invitation. The ones that punch the golden ticket are the US Amateur champ and runner-up and the winners of the US Mid-Amateur, Latin America Amateur, Asia-Pacific Amateur, and British Amateur. Here’s the lineup:
- Sam Bennett
- Ben Carr
- Harrison Crowe
- Mateo Fernandez de Oliveira
- Matthew McClean
- Aldrich Potgieter
- Gordon Sargent
Who Else Should We Mention?
Notably absent? World #2 amateur Ludvig Aberg, a Texas Tech player who’s leading both the World Amateur Golf Rankings (WAGR) and the PGA Tour University Rankings. Aberg went out in the Round of 64 at last year’s US Amateur Championship, so no ticket there. He’s no doubt soothing his bruised ego by playing as an amateur on the PGA tour, getting sponsor exemptions to tee up against the pros. He finished tied for 24th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational a couple of weeks back.
Aberg, the pride of Eslov Golf Club, hails from Sweden, where he could be the biggest golf export since Annika Sorenstam. He won the 2019 European Amateur Team Championship and was runner-up at the 2019 European Amateur.
Aberg graduates in May and has already marked June 1st as the date he officially turns pro. Aberg finished at the top of the Velocity Global Rankings for college seniors (the PGA version of encouraging amateur golfers to stay in school). So he gets a PGA card immediately. He’ll tee off as a real pro at the RBC Canadian Open on June 6th. And he’s committed to the PGA.
These guys are the top amateur golfers in the US, per PGA Tour University:
- Ludvig Aberg – Texas Tech
- Austin Greaser—University of North Carolina
- William Mouw—Pepperdine
- Sam Bennett—Texas A&M
- Fred Biondi—Florida
- Adrien Dumont De Chassart – University of Illinois
- Travis Vick – (My alma mater) – THE University of Texas at Austin
The sixth through tenth finishers, when the college season ends, exempt into the Second Stage of the PGA tour qualifying school and get a conditional card for the Korn Ferry Tour.
Amateurs at the US Open
Stop me if I’m starting to repeat names. Last year, four amateurs made the cut at the US Open at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass—Austin Greaser, Travis Vick, Sam Bennett, and Stewart Hagestad. None of them made much more than beer money. But playing on the weekend during this tournament is a big deal. Amateurs tend to do better at this tournament than at the Masters.
Bennett’s going to Augusta this year, and he made the cut at the Open (he finished 49th). So clearly, he’s a damn good player. But here’s how he stacks up against the competition. He won the 122nd US Amateur, claiming that spot for Augusta and at the 2023 US Open at the Los Angeles Country Club. He beat Ben Carr 1 up in the match play finale, the first Texas A&M golfer to win the Havemeyer Trophy. Oh–and he’s also gotten an exemption to play at THE Open at Royal Liverpool.
One thing I really like about Bennett is that he’s unashamedly still a college kid. He was invited to play at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera in February, teeing it up against, you know, Tiger Woods. Instead, he went to Hawaii with the rest of the A&M team to play in the John Burns Intercollegiate tournament. His comment to the media: “My sole focus is A&M… coming to Hawaii with my best friends and team that I’ve been with for five years on a free trip playing a college golf tournament, that’s pretty cool.”
Bennett has the swagger of a (mixing sports here) Rafa Nadal in the making. His pre-shot routine is annoying as hell for some spectators. He shuffles his feet and fiddles with his grip for what seems like forever. His swing ain’t all that pretty, but as he says, it’s called golf, not golf swing. And there’s this parting shot:
“I can get the ball in the hole pretty fast and usually faster than other people. So we’ll be fine.”
Greaser is #4 in the WAGR ranking. He’s a talent to be reckoned with every time he picks up a club. He’s finishing his senior year at UNC, where he’s hoping to lead the Tarheels to a national title. They’re third heading into the final weeks of the college season, behind Vanderbilt and Arizona State. He beat Mateo Fernandez de Oliveira to win the 120th Western Amateur at Exmoor Country Club, but he missed the cut for the Masters last year. This year, he’s heading to Augusta and to LA on some sort of redemption tour, no matter how Carolina does in the NCAA standings (better than basketball this year, so there’s that).
Greaser likes the course at Augusta. He should know, having played it seven times since he qualified for the Masters in August. I mean, that’s seven times more than most amateur golfers realistically dream of.
He does admit that the course plays a little differently when there are hotdogs and fans in the stands, and everything is in tip-top shape—when all the golfers are saying their prayers at Amen Corner. He hits the ball long off the tee but says his biggest boost is his putting. Growing up in the midwest and playing on bentgrass greens, the Augusta green setup is pretty comfortable for Greaser. We’ll see if he stays that confident in a couple of weeks.
Going pro is definitely part of the Greaser game plan—at least in the Korn Ferry Tour, if he doesn’t get his PGA card. He does plan to join the PGA, having been part of the PGA Tour University system and in the hunt for an automatic card. But Aberg probably has that sewn up. At any rate, Greaser doesn’t have any plans to join the LIV tour.
Gordon is the only amateur given a special exemption to play in this year’s Masters. He is that good. Vanderbilt is leading the NCAA this year thanks to wonder freshman Gordon Sargent. He joins Ben Crenshaw and Phil Mickelson as the only freshmen to win the NCAA Championship. He’s so good that the Masters Committee sent him a special invitation to the tournament this year.
Sargent is a big hitter and has been at the top of the WAGR. He’s okay with being an amateur for now. Also, he has no plans to go anywhere but the PGA when he leaves Vanderbilt.
Another thing I love about amateur golf is that you can watch the next generation of pros at qualifying events all over the world. You can also see them at a ton of courses in the US. If you can’t swing THE Open or the Masters, you can see some hella good golf at these amateur events.