By Stuart Hall
Bethesda, Md. - Russell Henley no longer wonders if he can win at the professional level. The 22-year-old amateur eradicated that thought by claiming the Nationwide Tour's Stadion Classic at UGA in early May.
Several weeks later, when Henley's University of Georgia collegiate career ended at the NCAA Division I Championships in Stillwater, Okla., the natural next step would have been to turn pro.
"The reason I didn't was because I want to make the Walker Cup Team," said Henley, who hopes to be selected for the USA side that faces Great Britain and Ireland Sept. 10-11 at Royal Aberdeen in Scotland.
Henley is one of a handful of the dozen amateurs competing in this week's 111th U.S. Open Championship with the same goal. Reigning U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein and runner-up David Chung, 2009 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Brad Benjamin and UCLA sophomore Patrick Cantlay, who recently was named the 2010-11 national collegiate player of the year and freshman of the year, are all strong candidates to make the 10-player team.
It's likely that seven members will be selected by the USGA's International Team Selection Committee prior to the U.S. Amateur in August, with the remaining three being named after the competition at Erin Hills outside of Milwaukee.
"It would be a great honor and it's clearly one of my goals this summer," said the 19-year-old Cantlay, the individual runner-up at the NCAA Division I Championship. "But you cannot get too far ahead of yourself and start thinking you have it made. If I just play my game and play well, I've done all I can do. The rest is out of my hands."
USA Captain Jim Holtgrieve, a three-time Walker Cup player, echoes Cantlay's perspective. While he is pleased that making the team is a high priority, the focus should be on this week at Congressional Country Club.
"They should just go out, compete and have fun," said the St. Louis resident, who has already begun scouting prospective players. "This week, their priority should be on making the cut and playing as well as they can."
The goals for this week's amateurs have a commonality: make the cut and finish among the top 10 to ensure an exemption into the 2012 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. A third objective would be to win, but given that no amateur has won since Johnny Goodman in 1933, that "might take the perfect week," said the 21-year-old Uihlein, a senior at Oklahoma State, where he has been a two-time All-American.
The numbers have not been all that positive for amateurs over the years. Of the 237 amateurs who have qualified for the U.S. Open since 1980, only 42 have made the cut. Since 1946, only 23 amateurs have cracked the top 15 -- the most recent being Spencer Levin, who tied for 13th at Shinnecock Hills in 2004. Only five have finished inside the top 15 since 1970.
"My expectations are going to be pretty much the same as Augusta, but try and grow on it a little bit," said Uihlein, whose first major appearance was at the Masters in April, where he shot 5-over 149 and missed the cut. "That's just to have some fun and enjoy it, and just figure out where I need to improve in areas and try and go from there."
Chung, 21, is quick to point out that this is the U.S. Open and it brings inherent challenges.
"It's going to be everything you expect it would," said the Stanford University senior. "There is nothing that really prepares you to play a U.S. Open. For me, playing the Masters [his first professional tournament] just adds to my sense of comfort for this week. I can focus a little more on what's going on between the ropes."
Henley, who tied for 16th and shared low-amateur honors with Scott Langley at last year's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links, believes he is in his element at this historic venue.
"The U.S. Open brings out the best in me," said the 22-year-old from Macon, Ga. "I just enjoy playing this event so much because you're playing with the very best players. And then there are the fans. Last year, people were cheering me on and I think they enjoyed the fact that I was noticing them and talking to them.
"But the harder the course, the better. I like to be rewarded for pars, for hitting fairways and greens and being tested on each shot. I think it's going to be fun."
This week can easily serve as a catalyst for the summer amateur competitions. After the U.S. Open, Cantlay, for example, expects to play the PGA Tour's Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn., on a sponsor's exemption, the California Amateur, the Nationwide Tour's Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational in Columbus, Ohio, on a sponsor's exemption, the Porter Cup, Western Amateur and the U.S. Amateur, where he lost in the 2010 semifinals at Chambers Bay to Uihlein.
For Chung, a strong summer would offset a collegiate season in which the results did not always match the quality of his game. Now that classes are out, Chung says he can focus solely on his game.
And making the Walker Cup team has added significance.
"I remember when I was about 10 or 11 and playing with my dad, and he would tell me that [making the Walker Cup Team] is one of the ultimate goals for an amateur," he said. "So it's been on my mind for quite some time."
Even though Uihlein played on the victorious 2009 USA Walker Cup Team (he went 4-0-0 at Merion Golf Club), he wants to relish that atmosphere again. That desire was renewed by a 16-player practice session in January hosted by Holtgrieve at Old Memorial Golf Club in Tampa, Fla.
On the opening night of that three-day session, Holtgrieve adapted a scene from the movie "Remember the Titans," to drive his point home. He put 300 golf balls into a Walker Cup-logoed backpack, strapped it to his back and went on a quick trot to work up a sweat. He then entered the dining room where the players were gathered and made his point.
"I took the backpack off and showed them the Walker Cup logo," Holtgrieve said. "Then I gave them each a backpack with the U.S. shield on it and told them, 'If you do the right things, play well, work hard and commit yourself, you could be wearing the Walker Cup logo come September.'"
Chung, a member of the 2010 USA World Amateur Team, said that was one of several inspirational talks Holtgrieve gave that week, along with sharing video highlights of the 2007 and 2009 Walker Cup Matches.
"I came away from that session really wanting to make the team," he said.
While there is no exact formula for making the Walker Cup squad, performances in the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open, along with appearances on past USGA teams - Walker Cup, World Amateur Team Championship and Copa de las Americas - carry a degree of cache.
"The bottom line is you need to play good, consistent golf," Holtgrieve said.
And hope the results merit a phone call later this summer from the USGA.
Stuart Hall is a freelance writer whose work had previously appeared on USGA championship websites.