Is Lee Poised to Take Off?
U.S. Amateur week began with Roy Williams, the basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, addressing the field of 315 players at their pre-championship dinner and talking about greatness. He spoke of the obsession for perfection from the likes of a former Tar Heel, Michael Jordan, and a current Tar Heel, Tyler Hansbrough. He told his fellow golfers (Williams is an avid aficionado of the ancient Scottish pastime) that the difference between being great and being phenomenal is infinitesimal.
"Don't ever quit striving for that extra one percent," Williams said.
The week ended with some 1,500 people strolling about the No. 2 course at Pinehurst on a sunny Sunday watching the youngest player ever to win the U.S. Amateur Championship. Danny Lee, just 18 years old, certainly has greatness written all over him. He hits the ball a ton, has a svelte putting stroke, manages his game well and plays at a happy-go-lucky pace. His 5-and-4 victory over Drew Kittleson followed his first-ever PGA Tour appearance when he finished in a tie for 20th in the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro last week.
"The pros say he plays like he's 30 years old," said Rambert Sim, a family friend who has chaperoned Lee on a three-month golf odyssey across America that has also included a victory in the Western Amateur.
Sim smiles and is quick to qualify the statement: "That's on the golf course. Off the course, he's still a kid, nine years old sometimes."
Sim pauses and goes back to his PDA device as he walks along the fairways of Pinehurst No. 2. His thumbs work nimbly over the keyboard as he transmits the results -- shot by shot -- to Lee's parents in New Zealand.
"Ah, yes, they are getting very excited," he says.
The wunderkind himself looked like a kid in a candy store as he reeled off four birdies on the back nine of the morning round to take control of the match. He smiled, slapped hands with kids after good shots and couldn't wait to go hit the next. Kittleson had barely finished missing his putt for par on the ninth green when Lee, who had the honor, was already teed up just steps away and launched his drive.
"This is fun," he said. "This is so cool to play in front of all these people."
The Sandhills area enjoyed a different version of competitive fun with the playing of the 108th Amateur. The Amateur first came to Pinehurst No. 2 in 1962, and over the last two decades No. 2 has hosted two U.S .Opens and a Senior Open, and Pine Needles has been the venue to three Women's Opens. Those events bring all manner of spectators, sponsors, reporters, volunteers and traffic cops.
The Amateur is decidedly low key and actually reaches an activity crescendo early in the week, when the full field plays 36 holes over two days of stroke play. Only 64 advance to match play, and the field is winnowed in half each day until there are just four left on the weekend. Much of the gallery early in the week is comprised of moms, dads, siblings, girlfriends and golf instructors. By the weekend, though, the locals came out by the dozens to see who would stake his place on the Havemayer Trophy along with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Bobby Jones and other luminaries in the game.
"These kids are fresh," said Ron Crow, general chairman of the U.S. Amateur. "They are still having fun. It's not like all of this money rides on every shot."
Among the spectators were Peggy Kirk Bell, a top woman's amateur from the 1940s and the owner of Pine Needles in Southern Pines; John Derr, who broadcast 65 Masters Tournaments for CBS Television; Joanne Ward, widow of two-time U.S. Amateur champion Harvie Ward; Bob Tufts, great grandson of Pinehurst founder James W. Tufts; and Robert Dedman Jr., the owner of the resort and club today.
The No. 2 course offered an excellent venue, though one that was softer and without the fangs it deploys for the U.S. Open in mid-June. The course was particularly docile early in the week for qualifying as nearly seventh-tenths of an inch of rain fell on the Sunday before the championship opened. But there was no rain the rest of the week, and the wind picked up toward the weekend. The greens rolled at 10.5 on the Stimpmeter compared to 11.5 for the Open in 2005.
Consider that Payne Stewart shot 1-under-par over four rounds of the 1999 Open and Michael Campbell was even-par in 2005 and it's boggling to look at Lee's scorecard of five-under for the morning round and six-under through 14 holes in the afternoon.
"It's mid-August in North Carolina," said Jim Hyler, chairman of the USGA Championship Committee. "We knew the greens would be a little softer, a little less firm than for the U.S. Open. But we accepted that. Actually the greens have dried out and firmed up from Monday. We're seeing some balls release over the greens."
"I was watching guys on two with a back hole location," added Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions. "They were throwing it all the way back and stopping it. You don't see that in an Open. In an Open, you land it the front third and let it release back."
The two vanquished semifinalists from Saturday, Adam Mitchell and Patrick Reed, are both Georgia Bulldogs and each had their fathers carrying their golf bags, cleaning their clubs, reading greens and helping them keep their ballast. Both dads were understandably disappointed they wouldn't be caddies in the Amateur final, but both had a week of cherished memories.
William Reed spent a week in Pinehurst in the 1970s when he won a trip to an Arnold Palmer Golf Academy held at the resort at the time, so it was a thrill when his son, not yet born when pop first visited Pinehurst, qualified for the Amateur.
"The expectation was to soak up the history of Pinehurst," William said. "Moving to Augusta like we did, when you think of golf, you think of Augusta and you think of Pinehurst. It was a special week, and this is a special place. Patrick will have this memory for life."
Adam Mitchell says his dad is his best friend, and it was telling on the 16th green while Kittleson was studying his match-clinching chip shot that father knelt behind son and gave him a vigorous shoulder and back rub. Jim was a little choked up afterward putting the week in perspective.
"It's all the clichs you'd think it would be," he said, then told of their base at the Manor Inn and the fun of knocking around the village in the evenings. Adam spent some time preparing for Pinehurst No. 2 in his home of Chattanooga by practicing at Chattanooga Country Club, like No. 2 a Donald Ross designed course.
"Adam has an appreciation for the history here," Jim says. "He likes to know that Hogan thought the 11th was the hardest par-4 he'd ever played, and that 11th was the hardest fairway to hit in the U.S. Open. He picks up on those things. We looked at Donald Ross' house on the third hole every day we walked past it."
With Danny Lee's victory and the departure of the USGA from Pinehurst, that's it for major championship golf in the Sandhills until the 2014 U.S. Open. The question now becomes over the next six years: Who among these excellent young players achieves that level Roy Williams was talking about?
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