By Ron Balicki
Golfers from around the globe will descend on Tulsa, Okla., and Southern Hills Country Club for the 109th U.S. Amateur Championship, yet one need look no farther than 80 miles to the west to find a host of contenders.
Stillwater is the home of Oklahoma State University, and starting with Scott Verplank's victory in 1984, the U.S. Amateur Championship has had its share of Cowboys in the arena.
In 1994, Trip Kuehne was the U.S. Amateur runner-up to Tiger Woods as he claimed the first of his three consecutive victories. In 1998, Trip's younger brother, Hank, who attended OSU briefly before transferring to Southern Methodist University, claimed the national amateur crown.
Also, Hunter Mahan was the U.S. Amateur runner-up in 2002, and Casey Wittenberg did the same the following year.
With the championship being held nearby at acclaimed Southern Hills, site of the 1965 U.S. Amateur, three U.S. Open and four PGA Championships, there is extra incentive for the OSU contingent to attempt to join Verplank.
Current Cowboys Rickie Fowler and Morgan Hoffmann are both exempt into the final field of 312 players at Southern Hills, while Kevin Tway earned a spot through sectional qualifying. Teammates hoping to join them at Southern Hills through qualifying held at 99 sites around the country July 20-Aug. 11 are Peter Uihlein, Trent Whitekiller and Mark Johnson.
"Winning the U.S. Amateur would be the highlight of my amateur career, and with it being held so close to school, it would make it extra special," said Fowler, a California native and member of the USA Walker Cup squad in 2007 and USA World Amateur Team in 2008. Fowler, currently among the nation's top amateurs, has declared his intention to turn professional this fall. "I think we'll get a lot of Cowboy fans out there that week, so I'm hoping we have a good showing from the Cowboys who compete."
Fowler is a two-time first-team All-America and earlier this year tied for third at the NCAA Division I Championships at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio.
Tway, a junior at OSU, grew up not far away in Edmond and is very familiar with the rolling terrain at Southern Hills. Tway earned his spot in the field by placing third at a sectional qualifier July 27 at Quail Creek Golf & Country Club in Oklahoma City.
"My dad [PGA Tour player and former PGA Championship winner Bob] will probably caddie for me again this year. With that and it being so close to home and school, winning would be very special for me," said Tway, the 2005 U.S. Junior Amateur champion.
"I've probably played [Southern Hills] 10 to 15 times, and it's a great golf course. It should be perfect for match play."
Last summer, just prior to entering his freshman year at Oklahoma State, Hoffmann advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst. And he knows the expectations this year will be much greater, not only on himself, but on all his Cowboy teammates.
"It's going to be really special this year because all of us should have a lot of our friends out there watching," said Hoffmann, a first-team All-America and winner of the Phil Mickelson Award as the country's top freshman. "We're all playing well this year, so it's going to be fun to see who makes it the farthest. There's probably going to be a little more pressure this year, but it should be fun having a bunch of people out there cheering for us."
Despite the prowess, and proximity, of OSU players, it's still a longshot that anyone connected with the school will be the next amateur champion. The depth of talent worldwide is too deep.
Look no further than the final of the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, held July 13-18 at the Jimmie Austin University of Oklahoma Golf Course in Norman, for two excellent contenders.
Winner Brad Benjamin, 22, of Rockford, Ill., showed the ability to raise his game to rare heights in a 7 and 6 final rout of top-seed Nick Taylor, 21, of Canada. Benjamin, an Academic All-American at Memphis, was four up after 18 holes and never allowed Taylor to get in the match.
"He basically did to me what I had done to everyone else all week," an admiring Taylor said.
Taylor, the low amateur at the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage State Park, was the stroke play medalist and had cruised through the match play bracket, needing only a combined 72 holes to win his five previous matches. Taylor was a first-team All-America this past season as a junior at Washington, where he won four tournaments. He finished second at the NCAA Central Regional and tied for ninth at the NCAA Championships.
Also among the early favorites are All-America first-teamer Cameron Tringale of Georgia Tech, along with 2008 U.S. Amateur runner-up Drew Kittleson of Florida State and semifinalists Adam Mitchell of Georgia and Patrick Reed of Augusta State.
Then there's 2008 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Jack Newman, 2008 U.S. Junior Amateur winner Cameron Peck, former British Amateur champ Drew Weaver, and Bronson Burgoon, the hero of this year's NCAA Championship while leading Texas A&M to the national team title.
Four of the last six U.S. Amateur champions have been international players, including defending champion Danny Lee, Korean born and residing in New Zealand. Lee turned professional after competing in the 2009 Masters - a perk that goes to the winner and runner-up.
Only two Canadians have ever won the U.S. Amateur, C. Ross Somerville in 1932 and Gary Cowan in 1966 and 1997. Don't be surprised if another is added to the list, three of the leading contenders from America's northern neighbor are Taylor and the Hill brothers, Graham and younger brother Matt.
Graham Hill was a quarterfinalist at last year's U.S. Amateur while Matt just completed one of the outstanding seasons in college history. Matt posted eight victories, including seven during the spring, and capped it off by winning the Atlantic Coast Conference, NCAA Central Regional and NCAA Championship, joining Tiger Woods (Stanford, 1996) as the only players to pull off that hat trick.
A first-team All-America, Matt, who defeated Jamie Lovemark in the opening round of the 2008 U.S. Amateur, was named winner of the Jack Nicklaus Award as college golf's top player.
There should be a host of international players in the field at Southern Hills who could make a title run, including Nicolas Geyger of Chile (and the University of Tulsa) and Jesper Kennegard of Sweden.
Many feel the week-long U.S. Amateur favors the younger generation. It certainly has been the case for a number of years. The last mid-amateur (age 25 or older) to take home the title was 41-year-old John Harris in 1993. The oldest champion was Jack Westland, 47, in 1952.
This group will be represented by reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Steve Wilson. Mike McCoy, Skip Berkmeyer and former U.S. Mid-Amateur winner Nathan Smith are other veteran amateurs vying to qualify for a spot in the final field.
Last year's USGA Senior Amateur runner-up George Zahringer, the 2002 U.S. Mid-Amateur winner and a member of the 2003 USA Walker Cup team at age 50, could make some noise for the senior set.
This article originally appeared in the 2009 U.S. Amateur Championship program.