Alex Smalley (AGC photo)
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Around Sunnehanna Country Club this week, the defending champion carried a golf bag emblazoned with a bright red “USA.” Alex Smalley picked that up last week at the Arnold Palmer Cup, where he made the first national-team appearance of his career.
The symbolism there is hard to miss. Smalley, like every other amateur serious about this game, hopes he’s part of the 10-man Walker Cup squad representing the U.S. at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, England in September.
Winning back-to-back Sunnehanna titles is a good way to draw attention to himself. He’s the first guy to do that since Rickie Fowler in 2007 and ’08, and only the fifth man to do it since the Sunnehanna began in 1954.
If this wasn’t a Walker Cup year, Smalley isn’t sure he’d still be an amateur. He would have had to think hard about turning professional, at the very least. The Greensboro, N.C., native completed his degree in environmental science at Duke last month. At the end of the summer, Smalley plans to play Web.com Tour Qualifying School.
Here’s the other thing that convinced him to stay put in amateur golf a few extra months: Smalley grew up roughly an hour and a half from Pinehurst, where they’ll play the U.S. Amateur in August. He’s played the famous No. 2 course roughly 25 times since he was a kid.
“U.S. Am was big and then obviously Walker Cup was big,” he said. “I don’t know if I would have stayed am or not if it wasn’t a Walker Cup year, but I’m glad I did.”
Smalley’s golf swing is so smooth it’s hypnotic. He built it with help from instructor David Sykes at Heritage Golf Club in Wake Forest, N.C., as a kid, but stopped taking lessons by the time he was 14. Throughout middle school and high school, Smalley and his dad Terry had a standing golf game every weekend. Terry got to know his son’s swing tendencies so well that he could help give a little guidance.
“He told me what he saw and I would fix it,” Smalley said. “I haven’t really seen an instructor since then.”
Once Smalley got to Duke, his coaches there helped him fine-tune, particularly around the greens.
On Saturday, the challengers dropped like flies behind Smalley at Sunnehanna CC, a par 70 with wicked greens. It’s hard to catch a guy like that, who doesn’t make mistakes.
“It’s (a golf course) where you really have to plot your way along. It’s one where you have to think your way through each shot and I missed in the right places again this year,” Smalley said. “…I think it’s an advantage for me to play a course where you really have to think through every single shot.”
Smalley was 6 under after 54 holes and tied with Spencer Soosman, who still has a year left at Texas. Nobody else was within four shots at the start of the final round.
Smalley had two bogeys in two of his first three holes on Saturday morning. That’s when his grandmother Ruby Lyons got off the golf cart and walked the fairways the rest of the way in. She thought it might bring him some better luck.
Ruby and her husband Mike watch Smalley, one of nine grandchildren, play as much golf as possible.
“We’re small-town people and family means everything” Ruby Lyons said.
At the fourth hole, Smalley made his first birdie of the day. He made three more at Nos. 6, 7 and 9. When he holed a three-footer for another birdie at No. 12, and Soosman missed his birdie try from 6 feet, Smalley went two shots ahead.
Smalley played the remaining six holes in 1 under and Soosman went 7 over to drop to a tie for 11th.
At 10 under, Smalley finished five ahead of Oklahoma’s Garrett Reband and six ahead of recent Yale grad James Nicholas
It’s a rare thing to defend a national amateur title in today’s golf climate. That wasn’t lost on Smalley, who viewed it as more of a challenge than a start-of-the-week advantage. As he noted, the slate was clean when 100 of the world’s best amateurs showed up in Johnstown this week.
“It’s great to go back to back,” he said. “It’s just a little affirmation that I’m comfortable on the course and I can play the course well.”
ABOUT THE Sunnehanna Amateur
The Sunnehanna Amateur was inaugurated in
1954 -- it was the first country club
sponsored 72-hole stroke play competition for
in the United States. The
tournament is played on a classic A.W.
design. Only one other amateur
tournament in the United States can list the
Chick Evans, Arnold Palmer, Julius
Boros, Art Wall, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson,
Woods, and Rickie Fowler as
contestants: the United States Amateur. Its
format has been emulated by
countless amateur tournaments across the
View Complete Tournament Information