It's Amateur Time: 14 Locals Seek Berths in Pinewild Qualifier
The love affair between the United States Golf Association and Pinehurst Resort is still smoking hot.
When the U.S. Men's Amateur Championship is staged on the Donald Ross-designed No. 2 Course Aug. 18-24, it will mark the eighth national title to be decided on the site.
It began in 1962 when John F. Kennedy was president of the United States. That was the year that Jackie Robinson became the first black player to be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Comedian Ernie Kovacs was killed in a car crash.
A 21-year-old golfer by the name of Jack Nicklaus made his professional debut, finishing 50th in his first tournament. Ted Kennedy was elected to his first term as senator from Massachusetts.
Sandy Koufax threw a no-hitter against the New York Mets.
And Labron B. Harris Jr. won the U.S. Amateur in Pinehurst.
There's no way to predict the winner of the Amateur. If Bobby Jones were still competing, he might be a good bet. He won it more than anyone else -- five times. Jerome Travers won it four times. Tiger Woods owns three titles.
It's easy to name some favorites. Not nearly as easy to name the favorite.
Ron Balicki, who covers college golf for Golfweek, is as knowledgeable as anyone about the current amateur stars. But even he can't single out a definitive favorite.
"If I had to pick one guy, it would probably be Jamie Lovemark from Southern Cal," Balicki said. "He was the Freshman of the Year two years ago, and he's still one of the top players in the country."
Two days after making that statement, Balicki watched as Lovemark lost to Florida State's Matt Savage in a playoff for the North and South Championship on Pinehurst No. 2.
"The main reason Lovemark is in the North and South is to see the golf course," Balicki said. "He has a copy of the pin placements from the 2005 U.S. Open, and he studies them. He was the medalist in the North and South, and he's obviously playing well."
But Balicki has been around long enough to know that picking winners in golf tournaments is a hazardous experience. So he hedges his bets.
"I think Rory Hie, a teammate of Lovemark's at USC, could win it," he said. "He's a first-team All-American, and he's had a better year than Jamie."
Lovemark is ranked as the No. 3 Amateur in the world, while Hie is ranked No. 10. Rickie Fowler and Billy Horschel are ranked 1 and 2.
Hopefully, there will be a familiar flavoring to the event as 14 local players are attempting to make the field in the two-day qualifier being held on Pinewild Country Club's Magnolia Course Monday and Tuesday.
Those players include Sherrill Britt, of West End, the reigning Moore County champion; Kelly Miller, of Southern Pines, president and CEO of Pine Needles and Mid Pine Resorts; Jack Fields, of Southern Pines, current North Carolina Amateur champion; Christian Hazzard, Eddie Peckels, William Rocchi, Andrew Schneider, Ken Eichele, Sam Packard, and Daniel Neveu, all of Pinehurst; Robert Hoadley, Jack Ulrich and Blair Miller, all of Southern Pines; and Jay Basinger of Pinebluff.
There are 132 players in the Pinewild qualifying field, of which five will advance to U.S. Amateur stroke play on Pinehurst Resort Courses 2 and 4. There will also be two alternates listed.
The field will be trimmed to the low 30 percent and those within eight strokes of the lead for the final round.
Five other players from Pinehurst attempted to qualify in the sectional held at Keith Hills on Wednesday and Thursday. They were Russell Burke, Duff Meyer, William Lincicome, Jeff Etheridge and Patrick Barrett.
Labron Harris was only 20 years old when he won the Amateur in 1962, defeating Downing Gray 1-up in the 36-hole finals. Harris found himself trailing Downing by five holes after the morning 18, but had pulled even after eight holes in the afternoon.
The Amateur Championship returned to Pinehurst in 1980, as it was hosted by the Country Club of North Carolina's Dogwood Course.
A blond young phenom by the name of Hal Sutton roared into prominence that year. Playing out of little-known Centenary College in Louisiana, Sutton dispatched of Willie Wood, Jim Gallagher Jr. and Jodie Mudd to reach the finals.
Then he blew away Bob Lewis Jr., 9 and 8.
"When I won the U.S. Amateur, I was still undecided about turning professional," Sutton said later. "I didn't know if the Tour life was what I wanted to lead. I knew it was going to be a difficult life, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to cope with that."
He did turn professional, though, and coped well enough to be named Rookie of the Year in 1982 after winning the Walt Disney World Classic.
His scoring average of 70.94 in 1983 was only three-tenths of a stroke behind Tour-leading Raymond Floyd and he edged Jack Nicklaus by a shot to win the PGA Championship.
The verdict is still out on the winner of the third U.S. Amateur Championship to be held in Pinehurst, but whoever it is will earn it.
There are too many good young players in the field for anyone to take the title without playing great golf.
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