By Sean Martin, Golfweek
The Jones Cup is one of the premiere amateur events of the year. It’s also the first. Here’s 5 Things we learned as the amateur season kicked off last weekend at Ocean Forest:
Sean Dale’s victory was his first in an elite amateur tournament. He didn’t come out of nowhere, though missed time may make it seem that way. Dale was a second-team All-American for North Florida in 2010. He’s played just one season since. He redshirted the 2010-11 season because of a knee injury and sat out this fall to pursue PGA Tour Q-School; he advanced to the second stage before bowing out. Dale was No. 25 in last season’s Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings and an honorable-mention All-American. He also was a quarterfinalist at the 2012 Western Amateur and finished fourth at the Players Amateur.
Dale, 23, is a fifth-year senior at North Florida. Winning the Jones Cup puts him solidly in contention for a spot on the Walker Cup team, should he decide to remain amateur until September. He moved up 51 spots in the R&A World Amateur Golf Ranking to No. 33.
Not only did Dale shoot Sunday’s low round at Ocean Forest, a 3-under 69, to come from four shots behind, but he became the first person to break par for 54 holes since Rees Jones re-designed Ocean Forest in 2007. The previous four Jones Cups were won with scores of even-par or higher.
The final-round scoring average at Ocean Forest was 77.68, more than a stroke higher than either of the previous two rounds.
TIGHT RACE: I can’t help but think this is going to be an especially tight race for Walker Cup spots. Not only are two spots guaranteed to mid-amateurs, but we also have a reigning U.S. Amateur champion intent on making the team and a couple likely locks. It’s only January but already several spots seem accounted for. And don’t forget that the 2013 U.S. Amateur champion, regardless of previous pedigree, will have a spot on the team if he’s American.
Steven Fox, the 2012 U.S. Am champ, is a rare case. Only twice this century has an American won the U.S. Amateur in a non-Walker Cup year and stayed amateur for the matches: Peter Uihlein, the 2010 U.S. Amateur champion, and 2000 winner Jeff Quinney. Both were named to the following year’s Walker Cup team, though they may have been selected even if they weren't U.S. Am champs. Uihlein was one of the world's top amateurs in 2011 and won that year's Northeast Amateur. Quinney was a second-team All-American and co-Pac-10 player of the year in 2001.
Fox has performed well in some events the USGA views closely. He helped the United States to victory at the World Amateur Team Championship, finishing 10th individually, and represented the USA at the Copa de las Americas. The USGA looks favorably upon players who have represented it at previous international events. Fox also made the Round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur Public Links. He finished 44th at the Jones Cup.
Good friends Justin Thomas, last year’s Haskins Award winner, and 2011 Walker Cup team member Patrick Rodgers are all but locks for the team. Thomas played at the World Amateur Team Championship (T-7) and was a semifinalist at the 2012 U.S. Amateur. Rodgers won this season’s Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Intercollegiate and U.S. Collegiate, two of college golf’s top events. Both Thomas and Rodgers are in the top 10 of the current Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
That means one thing for the rest of the Walker Cup contenders: play hard, boys.
’BAMA BOYS: A player with Alabama ties has finished in the top five at each of the past four Jones Cups. Cory Whitsett continued that trend by holding the 36-hole lead and finishing second. His teammate, Justin Thomas, was the 2012 champion at Ocean Forest. Bud Cauley finished third in 2011 and Bobby Wyatt was fifth one year earlier, when he was a high-school senior.
Like last year, Whitsett has had a fruitful break between the fall and spring seasons. He was third at the Western Refining College Golf All-America Classic in November before finishing second at the Jones Cup. Whitsett won both the Western Refining and Patriot All-American last season, then carried that success into the spring, posting six top-11 finishes in eight starts, including a win at the Linger Longer. Whitsett said that pattern has been consistent throughout his college career because he welcomes the holiday break after a busy spring and summer.
“I’m refreshed. I’m excited about playing golf,” Whitsett said. “I just go out and play.”
He begins this spring season ranked 72nd in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. The fourth-ranked Tide will be looking for another big spring from him, as well as Thomas and Wyatt, as they seek an NCAA Championship.
MID-AM MICROSCOPE: A handful of mid-ams will be under the microscope this amateur season because of the USGA’s decision to mandate two Walker Cup roster spots for the 25-and-over crowd. Nathan Smith, the four-time U.S. Mid-Am champ, seems a lock for one of the spots. Todd White is the favorite for the other spot after being the only other mid-am invited to December’s team practice session. He only solidified his candidacy with his T-6 finish at the Jones Cup. White followed an opening-round 76 with consecutive 72s at Ocean Forest.
Smith finished 18th at the Jones Cup as he prepares for his fourth Masters appearance. He is still trying to become the first player invited as the reigning Mid-Amateur champion to make the cut.
I am not against having mid-ams on the Walker Cup team, as long as they are deserving. I’m not even opposed to giving a mid-amateur an edge in selection if he has a comparable resume to a college player. I am against quotas, though, especially in a Walker Cup selection process that is completely subjective and shrouded in secrecy. The process leaves candidates – many of whom have put pro careers on hold to make the team – in the dark until the roster is announced. No selection criteria had ever been made public until the mid-am quota was announced. Every year, there are more qualified Walker Cup candidates than roster spots. That’s why I am against guaranteeing two spots to a certain demographic when it isn’t known if that group can produce two qualified candidates.
This statistic should give U.S. supporters pause: the United States is 1-4 in the last five Walker Cups where it had multiple mid-ams on the roster. The 2003 team was the last one to have more than one mid-am. The U.S. is 3-1 in the matches since then.
TIGHT TRAVEL: Rick Lamb finished 29th at the Jones Cup, which ended Feb. 3. He went on to win the SeaBest Invitational, a 54-hole collegiate event at TPC Sawgrass’ Players Stadium Course, on Feb. 4-5. Thirty-six holes were played the first day, followed by 18. Lamb won by six shots with a 5-under 211 total to claim his second consecutive college victory. He closed the fall season with a victory at the Gifford Collegiate. Both wins came at PGA Tour courses. The Gifford was held at CordeValle, which hosts the Frys.com Open. TPC Sawgrass’ Players Stadium Course annually holds the Players Championship. For those counting at home, Lamb played 108 holes (six competitive rounds) in five days.
In between his two collegiate victories, Lamb finished 13th at the Australian Master of the Amateurs at Royal Melbourne, site of the 2011 Presidents Cup. TPC Sawgrass is about an hour south of Ocean Forest. Lamb also made match play at the 2012 U.S. Amateur, the Sweet 16 at the Western Amateur and had top-10s at the Southern Amateur, Players Amateur and Northeast Amateur.
Lamb wasn’t the only player with a tight schedule last week. John Catlin helped his New Mexico team win the Arizona Intercollegiate last Tuesday. The Jones Cup began Friday. He finished 18th at the Jones Cup, equaling his finish at the Arizona Intercollegiate.