By Sean Martin
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – Tom Watson was competing in the Senior British Open last week while amateurs were making headlines stateside. He was well aware of the amateurs’ accomplishments, though. And he knows the reason behind their success.
“The amateurs today are pros; they’re not amateurs,” Watson said. “They play a lot of competition. They have the trainers like the pros do, they have the coaches like the pros do, they have the video equipment like the pros do.
“They’re AmNOs – amateur in name only.”
Last week, amateurs finished 1-2 on the Nationwide Tour, with Georgia’s Harris English topping LSU’s John Peterson by a shot in the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational. Peter Uihlein, the U.S. Amateur champion, finished ninth. North of the border, UCLA’s Patrick Cantlay tied for ninth in the PGA Tour’s RBC Canadian Open. Amateur Robert Karlsson shared the first-round lead at the European Tour's Nordea Masters, just one week after Tom Lewis did the same at the Open Championship.
Watson played alongside Lewis at the Open, and played with Matteo Manassero when Manassero finished 13th as an amateur at the '09 Open.
“When my dad asked (Arnold Palmer) about what would make me a better player, he said, ‘play in as much competition as you can,' " Watson said. "When you’re 20 years old, you’re a pretty seasoned player when you have the ability to play the type of competition that these kids have a chance to play in.”
Watson’s competitive schedule from his amateur days pales in comparison to the docket of today’s amateurs, who compete year-round, and often sprinkle in a handful of pro tournaments. Watson said he played just four amateur events each summer -- the U.S., Missouri, Western and Trans-Mississippi amateurs. By comparison, Cantlay has played in four PGA Tour events this summer.
“When I played college golf, we only played in the spring quarter,” Watson said. “We played high schools, we played junior colleges in dual matches. We had five or six tournaments, that was about it. All the rest of the competition were duals. We might play a dual against UCLA or USC. One year it was called off because we didn’t have the money. Guess what our budget was for the Stanford golf team: $8,000.”
Another explanation for amateurs’ recent success in pro events? The fact that the top collegians and amateurs are getting opportunities to play against the pros. They can’t win if they can’t get in the field. And seeing their peers contends against pros gives today’s amateurs the belief that they can do the same.
Amateurs have long contended at majors, so it should be expected that they’d find success on the Tour’s secondary circuit. The Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational, which invites about a dozen college All-Americans each year, started in 2007. An amateur, Daniel Summerhays, won that year.
Rickie Fowler lost a playoff as an amateur at the 2009 NCHI. That means an amateur has had the low 72-hole score in three of the NCHI’s five playings. An amateur has finished in the top 10 in all five NCHIs. With so many amateurs invited each year, it seems certain that at least one will have a good week. And we’ve seen that an elite amateur’s top golf is good enough to hang with the pros.
English wasn’t just the second amateur to win on the Nationwide Tour this season. He was the second member of the University of Georgia golf team to win on the PGA Tour’s developmental circuit. Taking advantage of an exemption given to the University of Georgia's top two players, English’s teammate and college roommate, Russell Henley, won the Stadion Classic at UGA.