Canon Claycomb (John Klein photo)
There’s an art to competitive golf – one that revolves around climbing the ladder, getting the right experiences and setting foot in enough new arenas that it forces growth. Canon Claycomb
knows all about it because he’s in the middle of it.
After a third-place finish in the Orlando International Amateur, Claycomb, 17, had just a short drive back to his home in the Lake Nona community outside Orlando proper. The relatively new (yet increasingly deep) amateur event presents the rare sleep-in-your-own-bed opportunity for Claycomb, a player who competed everywhere from Australia to Pennsylvania to France to Texas in a busy 2018 that saw him climb as high as No. 25 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
“Being able to wake up two hours before your tee time and be here in 30 minutes is really nice and sleeping in your own bed of course is really awesome. I think that’s part of the reason I had some success here,” Claycomb said of a third-place finish at Orange County National. He was fourth a year ago.
Claycomb presents a fascinating case study in moving through the realms of competitive golf. Juniors grow up, transition from junior to amateur to college to Tour, and it all appears seamless. From Claycomb’s perspective, though, it’s a very deliberate process.
He’s a Florida resident now, but there’s a lot of Kentucky left in the high school junior. It’s where Claycomb grew up before making the move to Orlando a few years ago. Even though it was mostly a golf move, the family never dreamed that the two boys – Canon has a younger brother, 13-year-old Cooper -- would experience the kind of high-level golf immersion that Lake Nona has had to offer.
Claycomb names 20-year-old Ryan Ruffels, who’s playing the PGA Tour Latinoamerica, and 22-year-old Sam Horsfield, a European Tour member, as “probably my best friends.”
“Just being able to see them almost on a daily basis and follow their career -- they’re finishing third and fourth and second on the European Tour, maybe I can too,” he said.
He’s sharing range space with established Tour players Henrik Stenson and Ian Poulter, but access to the up-and-comers is more frequent and maybe more helpful. Since Claycomb started practicing at Lake Nona, former Florida State player Hank Lebioda secured his PGA Tour card with a top-25 finish on the Web.com Tour money list. He was mostly playing Latinoamerica events when Claycomb first met him, but Claycomb quickly noticed indicators of future success.
“He was hitting balls on the regular range just like everybody else, getting to the course, grinding for two hours,” Claycomb remembered. “Once he got his practice done, he went home. He wasn’t messing around on the range doing putting contests, just nine holes for nothing. He got out there and he did his job.”
Orlando International Amateur (John Klein photo)
Claycomb clearly enjoyed himself during a final-round 67 at Orange County National – occasionally flipping his hat backward during the round, unabashedly celebrating birdie putts, chatting with friend and caddie Hiroshi Tai (a Georgia Tech commit) during idle moments – but he’s serious when he needs to be serious, and that will ease the jump to the next level.
“As a junior, you look at amateur golf and you’re like, ‘OK, it can’t be that hard.’ But this was the first year that I played multiple amateur events, like high-caliber amateur events,” Claycomb said. “Seeing the golf courses that they play and the people who are there, it’s kind of like the PGA Tour as a junior.”
Claycomb entered the Terra Cotta Invitational (41st), the Sunnehanna (MC) and the Northeast Amateur (MC) in 2018. The latter two starts, at Sunnehanna Country Club and Wannamoisett Country Club (two Northeast gems), were not the kind of bomb-and-gouge junior-golf layouts Claycomb was used to.
“You have to take this angle to get that angle to that flag and that’s just different from junior golf because in junior golf, you can kind of just fire at everything and take it as low as you want,” he said.
Then again, arguably Claycomb’s biggest victory came at the 2017 AJGA Ping Invitational at Karsten Creek in Stillwater, Okla., a course that also hosted both NCAA championships in the spring. Claycomb called it “the hardest place I’ve ever played in my life,” but he hit his driver on a string all week and broke a Jordan Spieth-held scoring record when he won at 9 under.
Among the people who stood out in the amateur-golf realm? A small-town firefighter with a USGA title and a Masters start.
Claycomb drew Matt Parziale, the 2017 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, in two of three rounds at the Terra Cotta, and walked away with an appreciation for having a full-time job and a top-notch golf game, too.
“It’s cool because you get to see that amateur golf isn’t just for the best college athletes in the world, it’s for everybody.”
Claycomb is a self-described momentum player with a good feel for his game. Poor play often reflects bad decision-making or trying to force the wrong kind of shot. That’s a kind of awareness that makes Claycomb well suited for the next level, and beyond.
• • •
DAD IN THE SPOTLIGHT
: With his third child on the way, Jeronimo Esteve
, 37, didn’t get many competitive reps in 2018. With his wife on bed rest, Esteve was filling the role of mom and dad for sons Jeronimo V and Nicolas. Golf took a back seat.
Jeronimo Esteve and son Jay (John Klein photo)
When Esteve did tee it up, though, he was in contention. He played in the final group in the final round four times – most recently at the Orlando International Amateur – but never won. At the Orlando event, near his Windermere, Fla., home – he finished fifth.
As a mid-amateur, Esteve was easy to spot among the college kids and juniors in the Orlando field, but he was also easy to spot because of his Eddie Lowry-esque caddie. He had the younger Jeronimo, a 9-year-old nicknamed Jay, on the bag, who was quick to note that this was his first time caddying for dad for real
“I told him what I needed was a buddy, and that’s what he was,” Esteve said.
Even though 2018 starts were sparse, Esteve managed a final 16 finish at the Crump Cup, to represent his native Puerto Rico at the World Amateur Team Championship in Dublin, a fifth at the George C. Thomas and a 10th at the Coleman Invitational. The Orlando International Amateur could potentially be a tuneup for the Latin America Amateur Championship, which Esteve would love to play in the Dominican Republic later this month if his wife is well enough for him to leave.
The obvious carrot there is a Masters exemption for the winner. Esteve has played in the event every year since it debuted in 2015, and “had a chance at every one.”
• • •
ONWARD AND UPWARD:
Another top female amateur will make the jump to the professional circuit in 2019. Georgia senior Bailey Tardy, who missed most of her junior season because of injury
, has announced she will turn professional this month. Tardy was a member of the 2016 U.S. Curtis Cup squad that lost to the GB&I squad at the matches in Dublin, Ireland.
Tardy will start on the Symetra Tour, likely beginning with the first event in March. She earned status on the developmental tour by advancing to the LPGA Q-Series last fall.
Tardy won twice in her freshman season at Georgia. She qualified for the U.S. Open three times as an amateur.
• • •
CHANGE OF VENUE
: In case you missed it before the holidays, the Pacific Coast Amateur
will be played in New Mexico in 2019 for the first time in its 53-year history. The Championship Course at the University of New Mexico will host the July event, often considered to be one of the strongest amateur championships on the West Coast.
Past host sites for the event include The Olympic Club last year, Eugene Country Club (which also served as host site of the 2016 NCAA Men’s Golf Championship), as well as Chambers Bay, Bandon Dunes and Martis Camp.
The Championship Course at New Mexico was the site of the 1950, 1976 and 1992 NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championships as well as the 1998 NCAA Championships. In 1987, the course hosted the NCAA Women’s Championship.
• • •
TOURNAMENTS TO WATCH:
Australian Master of the Amateurs, Jan. 8-11; Royal Melbourne (Australia)
It’s summer Down Under, which explains why this 72-hole event is so strong annually. Top Australians tee it up alongside a handful of top amateurs from around the world. The winner receives an invitation to the Players Amateur and the Porter Cup, both U.S.-based amateur events.
Harder Hall Invitational, Jan. 7-9; Harder Hall Country Club, Sebring, Fla.
A longtime stop on the storied Florida Orange Blossom Circuit, this championship is known as much for its biting temperatures as its list of winners. Many go on to have standout careers on the LPGA tour.
National Senior Junior Championship, Jan. 7-9; Dye Preserve, Jupiter, Fla.
A unique 54-hole stroke play invitational that features a "junior" (mid-am) and a senior. (There is also a Legends division that pairs legends and super seniors.) Last year’s winning team included U.S. Mid-Amateur runner-up Brett Boner.
• • •
STAT OF THE WEEK
: PLAY COMPETITIVE GOLF
STAT OF THE WEEK, PART DEUX:
PLAY COLLEGE GOLF
TWEET OF THE WEEK:
THAT TIME OF YEAR