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Walker Cup Watch List: Hammer on top, Smalley makes a case
17 Jun 2019
by Julie Williams of AmateurGolf.com

see also: The Walker Cup, Royal Liverpool Golf Club

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Brandon Wu (right) and his caddie (AGC photo)
Brandon Wu (right) and his caddie (AGC photo)

On a Walker Cup year, there is seemingly endless banter about who could potentially make the most coveted national team in amateur golf. It’s important for prospective players to build their schedules accordingly, perform well (getting a win in a major event goes a long way) and maintain a position near the top of the World Amateur Golf Ranking.

This year’s 10-man squad will be chosen in two phases after the USGA made major revisions to its international team selection process that will award more automatic qualifying spots. The U.S. Amateur champion automatically will make the team (if he is American), as well as the winner of the Mark H. McCormack medal (WAGR world No. 1 after the U.S. Amateur) and the top three American players in the WAGR (as of early August). The remaining selections will include at least one mid-amateur.

Here’s who we’re looking at, and we’ll update the list every two weeks (player listed with World Ranking in parenthesis):

Cole Hammer (4): When Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff, who both make their professional debut this week, exit the World Amateur Golf Ranking, Hammer will move to the No. 2 position (behind only Asia-Pacific Amateur champion Takumi Kanoya). If there’s a player who you'd call a lock for this team, then Hammer is the closest thing to that player. It’s likely he’ll qualify automatically through his World Ranking but even if not, there’s his match-play record to back that up.

Hammer’s summer match-play record in 2018 was 17-2. That included a Western Amateur victory and semifinal runs at the U.S. Junior and U.S. Amateur. Most recently, he beat Matthew Wolff in the NCAA semifinals, 4 and 3.

That’s the kind of guy you want on your team in a match-play competition.

Akshay Bhatia (7): There’s so much talent in college golf now that it makes it hard for a Walker Cup captain to dip down into junior golf to fill out his team. Bhatia, 17, doesn’t play like a junior golfer – not in skill or schedule. In fact, Bhatia is at Portmarnock (Ireland) Golf Club playing the British Amateur this week, presumably learning a bit about links golf.

Bhatia blistered the junior schedule last summer, earning four major junior victories and three runner-up finishes. But it was his Jones Cup win in February that said the most for his ability to compete with guys older and (arguably) more experienced than he is. Bhatia already attended the Walker Cup practice session in December, which says captain Nathaniel Crosby and the selection committee have noticed him.

Chandler Phillips (8): Phillips is the kind of fun-loving, low-maintenance guy who is good in a team setting. He recently appeared in his third Palmer Cup – becoming the first player to do that – and his overall record in the event stands at 5-4-2. Phillips, who played for Texas A&M, will also remain amateur throughout the summer in hopes of a Walker Cup bid.

Steven Fisk (11): The Georgia Southern graduate’s body of work over the past year speaks for itself. Fisk won six times as a senior, and he finished runner-up to Matthew Wolff in national-championship stroke play. He flirted with 59 twice in his college career, which might suggest an overly aggressive style of play. Fisk, however, gets his edge mentally. He plays strategically (re: the success he had at Blessings Golf Club during NCAAs) and he thinks his way around golf courses. That might be a nice skill given that the Americans will be competing in a links setting.

Watch out for Fisk in the Players Amateur, Western Amateur and U.S. Amateur over the next two months.

Brandon Wu (12): Making the cut at the U.S. Open puts Wu firmly in the national conversation, if he wasn’t there already after going 3-0 in NCAA match play as his Stanford team won the title.

“I think pro golf is always going to be there,” Wu said after a top-25 finish at Pebble Beach. “I'm not in a huge rush to go turn pro.”

Stewart Hagestad (16): Hagestad, 28, represents experience when the Walker Cup comes around. He played on the 2017 Walker Cup squad, and these days is playing as often – and as well – as ever. After a third-place finish at the George L. Coleman Invitational earlier this spring, he advanced through U.S. Open sectional qualifying for the third straight year even though he missed the cut at Pebble Beach.

John Pak (18): For whatever reason, Pak always seems to be a player who gets overlooked. Pak, who is halfway through his Florida State career, didn’t make the Palmer Cup squad this year despite winning three individual college titles in the spring, which included the ACC individual title. Here’s what’s also impressive about the New Jersey native: He can get hot. After opening with 75 at the Sunnehanna, Pak put together rounds of 67-67-68 to climb back into fourth.

“It’s great to be playing well at a good time of the year,” Pak said at the Sunnehanna.

Alex Smalley (23): If one Sunnehanna title is good, then two is certainly better. The winner of the long-running event often makes the Walker Cup squad – nine champions in the past 20 years (including Rickie Fowler, the last repeat champion in 2007-08) have done so. Despite graduating from Duke this spring, Smalley is remaining amateur largely for that opportunity. He’s got the kind of smooth swing and low-key demeanor that would be a good fit in the team room.

John Augenstein (24): Augenstein, winner of last summer’s Players Amateur, is fierce. His first-round match with Collin Morikawa at last summer’s U.S. Amateur was some of the most entertaining golf of the week. Augenstein won in 19 holes, and spoke later about how much he relishes the opportunity to go head-to-head against the best players.

Brandon Mancheno (45): Victory at the Dogwood went a long way in terms of putting Mancheno on the Walker Cup short list. The Auburn player won his team’s home tournament, the Tiger Invitational, at the start of the spring season but the results were middling from there. Another strong performance would help his case considerably.

NEXT FIVE

Isaiah Salinda (13): Like his Stanford teammate Wu, Salinda also went undefeated in NCAA match play. Salinda has been in the national conversation since winning the Pacific Coast Amateur last summer and playing his way to the semifinals at the U.S. Amateur. He finished his degree at Stanford this spring, but will remain amateur through the summer.

Austin Eckroat (27): The sole returner on Oklahoma State’s squad won once during the college season and made it through sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open.

Cameron Young (31): He won four times in four years at Wake Forest, but here’s the catch: two came as a first-semester freshman, then he didn’t win again until the spring semester of his senior season.

“Some of it was mindset, some golf swing, some mechanics,” Young after his April win at the Augusta/Haskins Award Invitational. Whatever he found, it’s working. Young qualified for the U.S. Open last month even though he missed the cut at Pebble Beach.

Trent Phillips (40): He opened his freshman season at Georgia with 10 consecutive rounds in the 60s and was the SEC Freshman of the Year. While he didn’t get an individual win this season, five top-5 finishes and an eighth-place finish at the NCAA Championship speak well for him.

Michael Thorbjornsen (54): He made the cut at the U.S. Open as a 17-year-old. Enough said.

ABOUT THE The Walker Cup

The Walker Cup Match is a biennial 10-man amateur team competition between the USA and a team composed of players from Great Britain and Ireland and selected by The R&A. It is played over two days with 18 singles matches and eight foursomes (alternate-shot) matches.

The first United States Walker Cup Team, which in 1922 defeated the GB&I side, 8-4, at the National Golf Links of America, is considered among the best teams ever and included Francis Ouimet, Bob Jones, Charles “Chick” Evans and Jess Sweetser. Many of the game’s greatest players have taken part in Walker Cup competition, including U.S. Open champions Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth for the USA and Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose for Great Britain and Ireland.

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