Luke Clanton (Chris King/DJ Junior)
Pinehurst has been good to Luke Clanton. The 15-year-old hopes that continues next week.
An 11-year-old Clanton was the U.S. Kids World Junior champion at nearby Talamore Golf Club in 2015, and Pinehurst celebrates its champions well. His family distinctly remembers its youngest member being paraded down the streets of this golf-centric city in a golf cart as if he were a small-town homecoming king.
Clanton’s father David remembers kids coming out by the hundreds. Luke was a rock-star that day. It felt surreal.
“It was pretty cool driving by and stuff like that,” Luke remembered. “Kids asked for autographs. It was a whole entire different experience.”
When Luke came back the next year, he got to move up to the Van Horn Cup, a one-day best ball for 12-year-olds at Pinehurst No. 2. Luke had 63 on his own ball.
“I’m a big fan of that golf course,” he said.
It’s funny how things work out. Luke, who lives in Miami Lakes, Fla., with his family, couldn’t have asked for a better place than Pinehurst to make his debut in the U.S. Amateur, a tournament he’s always dreamed about playing. Competitors will play Nos. 2 and 4 next week in stroke play before match play switches exclusively to No. 2 (No. 4 comes back into play for the first half of the 36-hole championship match).
If you follow amateur golf closely, then you’ve heard of Luke Clanton before. Last year in U.S. Amateur sectional qualifying, he was the player who lost the final spot in a Naples, Fla., qualifier to Gary Nicklaus. Luke, then 14, and Nicklaus, then 49, were paired together for the second round, and when they both ended up at 5 under, played three extra holes for a trip to Pebble Beach.
“Once we start playing, started talking, it was just like any other day,” David said. “Gary was a super nice fella. I thought for sure Luke had him on the ropes when they had to play extra holes.”
Luke liked his chances from the start. He felt his game getting stronger in the weeks leading up to that qualifier. He liked the scores he was posting. He was a little nervous playing Jack Nicklaus’ son, but when he cracked a joke about the Golden Bear on the first tee, then beat Nicklaus by two shots to force the playoff, it was a big confidence boost. It still didn’t make it any easier when he lost.
“He wanted it so bad,” David said.
Nicklaus, for his part, hardly celebrated. He walked straight to Luke, pulled him off to the side and praised his game. Nicklaus praised his game to the media later, too, telling the local newspaper, “I’ve never seen a 14-year-old as good as him.”
Luke and David Clanton
It was big validation.
“I definitely think I got more mature,” Luke said of how he’s grown since. “It’s a very cliché thing to say, but it’s very true because last year I was, I guess you could say, dumb. I didn’t play the golf course right. I would attack pins when you don’t need to attack pins and make really dumb mistakes.”
His results show that kind of calculated thinking. Most of Luke’s experience has come in junior events. He improved markedly from 2018 to 2019 in two of the biggest ones, logging a top-15 at the Junior PGA Championship and a top-10 at the Western Junior. Luke was also in the top 20 at the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley.
With each new generation of junior golfers, there are pillars for comparison. Akshay Bhatia, a 17-year-old who will skip college and make his professional debut in September after competing for the U.S. in the Walker Cup, is one of them. Luke spent the first week of March chasing down Bhatia at the Dustin Johnson World Junior in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He finished an eventual runner-up, but there was a catch. Luke had spent the weeks leading up to that start bed-ridden.
At the end of 2018, Luke was trying to play through back pain that kept getting worse. By Christmas he could barely walk, and decided he had to tell his parents about it. After a diagnosis of scoliosis in his lower back, his choices were to wear a back brace or be confined to his bed for several weeks to keep the situation from getting worse.
“With that setback, it changed my whole mind to how much I love this game.”
When Luke tees it up at Pinehurst next week, most of all he just doesn’t want to be “a little kid who just qualified.” He wants to be treated like the college players on property.
“Keep it very low key, work and work and work until the first round, and when I step onto that first tee it’s going to be all business,” he said of his plan. Still, 15-year-olds are much rarer in the U.S. Amateur than, say, in the Women’s Amateur. Luke will be one of four in the field, and there are only two players age 14.
Luke has always dreamed of this particular start. More than that, he’s dreamed of being around at the end of this week. You can almost see the film reel playing in front of his eyes as he describes it.
“It’s cool qualifying. I want to do a little bit more than just be there. I want to make a statement that I’m there to play,” he said. “I don’t want to take this too lightly because this is big and it’s one of my favorite golf courses.”
In the run-up to Pinehurst, Luke has worked hard with his dad to shape his go-to ball flight to a draw. David is the only swing coach he has ever known. When Luke’s older sisters Rachel, 23, and Abby, 21, decided this sport wasn’t for them, David was delighted when Luke took an interest. David poured himself into learning the game and has an undeniable knack for shaping a golf swing.
It seems like everyone at the driving range knows the Clantons. David will work with a player of any age. He almost always hears this line when he takes Luke out to practice: “Hey Mr. Clanton, can you take a look at me for a minute?”
Any father-son golf relationship can be a tight-rope walk, but the Clantons are managing it. The best reminder David gets that’s he doing the right thing by Luke comes periodically from his older daughters. A simple text that “you were right, Dad” is the best kind of reassurance.
And so the journey continues – for once, on familiar turf.