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U.S. Senior Open: Why it's so hard for amateurs to compete
Robert Funk (left) with first round leader Mark Hensby (Robert Funk photo)
Robert Funk (left) with first round leader Mark Hensby (Robert Funk photo)

It was a disappointing year for amateurs at the 2022 U.S. Senior Open. None survived the 36-hole cut, for just the third time in 42 years. With two of those years being in the last three playings, is a trend unfolding before our eyes?

Before going any further, let's give credit to all of the 20 amateurs that played this year against the legends of the game - many of them, like champion Padraig Harrington, well capable of competing at the PGA Tour level.

Billy Mitchell on a rainy Thursday (USGA)
Todd White of South Carolina, the 2015 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball champion and a 2013 USA Walker Cup competitor, missed by one single, maddening stroke. So things weren't that bad. Billy Mitchell of Atlanta, just a year after being the low amateur at the Senior Open, toughed out an 82 in the rain on Thursday, then birdied his last hole on Friday for a 1-under 70, the only subpar round by an amateur. Tony Soerries of Texas posted 8-over, while David Noll and Jack Larkin of Georgia were 9-over. All very solid performances.

But nothing compared to some of the banner years for amateurs like 2008 where six amateurs earned a chance to play on the weekend.

Then in 2009, Tim Jackson of Tennessee shot 66-67 to take the 36-hole lead, before falling back to a tie for 11th. At the time, he tied the 36-hole scoring record at the Senior Open, and set the amateur scoring record for 18, 36, and 72 holes. Jackson's 6-under total was 14 shots behind winner Fred Funk, who posted 20-under-par.

Here are a few reasons it's only getting tougher for amateurs to compete, and some highlights from the weeks of four AmateurGolf.com members who earned their way into the field at Saucon Valley.

THE FIELD - YOU MIGHT HAVE HEARD OF A FEW OF THESE GUYS

Have you ever tried to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open? Unlike the regular Open, it requires just one 18-hole qualifier. But it's no cakewalk; along with beating top amateurs, each of the qualifying locations might have former PGA Tour players, and most certainly the best over-50 PGA Section players. That hasn't stopped as many as 30 or more senior amateurs from making the field some years. (This year with about 20 was a little lighter than normal.)

For many of the amateurs, just getting there is enough. Can you imagine having a sign with your name on it on the range, and hitting balls next to Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, or Padraig Harrington? How about being paired with one of them?

Even if you aren't starstruck by these legends, your amateur resume can't compare with their major championship experience. Having contended or won major titles provides players like Jim Furyk (and of course our champion Harrington) with an edge that can't be quantified.

How many U.S. Opens, for example, did the amateurs at Saucon Valley have under their belt, and how does that compare with the rest of the field? I don't have to run the numbers to know the answer. Take 68-year-old ironman Jay Haas. This was his 50th USGA Championship. He's played in 27 U.S. Opens and recorded five top-10s. Haas beat his age by a stroke with a 67 in the first round and stayed steady the rest of the way to finish T7 at 2-under. That's incredible!

AMS ARE GETTING BETTER, AND STAYING IN SHAPE. PROS ARE TOO

Turning 50 in 2022 is a lot different than turning 50 many years ago, especially when it comes to golf. Today's 50-year-old professional golfer has always known the importance of physical (and mental) training.

Look at the speed training and 180 mph ball speeds produced by champion Harrington. As odd as it is watching him take six practice swings, whatever he's doing works. And if the desire wanes in their late forties, Tour players often find a renewed energy to compete at age 50.

In the 22 years I've run AmateurGolf.com, I've only seen a few players make the jump from being lifelong amateurs to successful Champions Tour careers. I'm all for chasing dreams, but it's a long shot. (Don't give up though -- read on for a story about Bryan Hoops and Michael Muehr, the only two amateurs to make it to the final stage of PGA Tour Champions qualifying in 2021.)

AND THERE'S THIS. U.S. OPEN COURSE SETUPS ARE REALLY TOUGH TO PREPARE FOR

Saucon Valley played like a beast at this year's Senior Open, in case you didn't see the little white flags being stuck in the ground by Marshalls as balls disappeared in the rough. Commentator Peter Jacobsen -- the 2004 U.S. Senior Open champion -- praised the USGA during his telecast for narrowing the fairways and returning the course setup this year to a more "U.S. Open style."

Southern Californian Tim Hogarth, a veteran of a total of 37 USGA events (and winner of the 1998 USGA Public Links) told me he finds it hard to prepare for tree-lined courses with heavy rough. Hogarth has qualified for the last five Senior Opens, but in his words "laid an egg" each time.

"You only get one shot a year to prove how your game really stacks up and that fact is too overwhelming," said Hogarth. "So you never perform at a high level and even more important, the course setup is completely different than anything I see all year, so it is very difficult to feel comfortable."

Hogarth pointed to the wide use of closely-mown areas at Southern California courses as one of the biggest differences. Now that the golf industry has embraced water conservation and making the game easier for players that can't fly a 9-iron 150 yards, the difference between courses he plays regularly and Saucon Valley is as wide as The Grand Canyon.

"Do you know," Hogarth asked rhetorically, "how many shots I had from closely-mown areas this week? Zero."

Hogarth, like the three other golfers I spoke with, didn't place blame on anyone but himself. He was quick to emphasize that if he wanted to play better, he could spend months on the East Coast playing tree-lined courses with lush rough. But the reality of amateur golf is that life gets in the way.



MORE AG MEMBER NOTES

A DISAPPOINTING INJURY FOR GENE ELLIOTT

Longtime AmateurGolf.com member Gene Elliott, the winner of the 2021 U.S. and British Senior Amateur championships, got the premium pairing alongside defending champ (and local favorite) Jim Furyk. The W. Des Moines, Iowa legend is the No. 2 ranked player in the AmateurGolf.com Senior Rankings. He's no stranger to the big stage, and this was his second U.S. Senior Open. So I knew when I saw his scores of 89-85 that injury must have been a factor. I was right.


Gene Elliott chopping one out of the rough (USGA)
Elliott tweaked his shoulder practicing at the Senior Hall of Fame tournament in early June but still wanted to take advantage of his exemption into The Amateur Championship at Royal Lytham. He played through the pain with the world's best amateurs, many of them 1/3 of his age.

"I got to England at the British Am at Lytham and it was killing me," he said. "I gutted out 77-70 there and got home and went to my orthopedic guy. He took X-rays and said the rotator cuff is ok but I have impingement and gave me the [cortisone] shot."

Elliott's pain got even worse at the Senior Open. It's unlikely he will be able to cross the pond to defend his British Senior Am title or play in the British Senior Open. [6/27 update - his doctor said he could give it a go - Ed.] Golf is far from a contact sport, but injuries are part of the game -- especially at the senior level.

ROBERT FUNK AND "COUSIN FREDDIE"

I would challenge you to find a player that enjoys the ride as much as Robert Funk of Canyon Lake, California. Funk has a winning resume, having captured big senior tournaments like the California Senior Am after taking to the game as a relatively late bloomer.


The Funk cousins share a moment
In 2017, he was the low amateur at the U.S. Senior Open at Salem Country Club near Boston, and the only amateur who made the cut.

The outgoing Funk doesn't squander a second of his fifteen minutes of fame.

At Salem Country Club in '17, he played a practice round with Bernhard Langer. "He showed me where to miss," said Funk, who was obviously a quick study.

This year, he got to spend more time with his cousin Fred Funk, who he said finally agrees that they are related after his sister retrieved a handwritten genealogy from his grandfather.

"He's a wonderful man," said Robert. "Very friendly."

BRYAN HOOPS: CHASING THE DREAM WHILE KEEPING IT ALL IN PERSPECTIVE


Bryan Hoops readies for action at Saucon Valley (B. Hoops)
Many golfers think that somehow, as if by magic, their games, physical conditioning, and years of practice will allow them to compete on the PGA Tour Champions. The fact is, the gap only widens. Nobody knows that better than Bryan Hoops of Tempe, Arizona, who has made it to the final stage of Champions Tour qualifying all three times he has tried, in 2019, 2020, and 2021.

The 5-time Arizona mid-am champion tied for 51st despite very respectable rounds of 75-75-71-71. To grab one of the five (you read right, just five) available spots would have required him to post 8-under, and climb past a number of names any golf fan would recognize. The next 30 players -- get this -- only earn the opportunity to avoid "pre-qualifying" for the Monday qualifiers held the week of each event. This year, reinstated amateur Michael Muehr decided to turn pro again after finishing T10 as the only other amateur who advanced to final qualifying.

Muehr has made it through more than one of those Monday grinds, and took home $3,960 at the Chubb Classic in February. But hey, he finished a shot ahead of Padraig Harrington and Billy Mayfair. Ken Tanigawa was winning just about everything in Arizona until 2017, when he gained full status on the Champions Tour. He's a multiple winner now, and in this year's Senior Open he set the record for the most birdies in a row with six.

Hoops (pronounced "hops") has enjoyed watching his close friend Tanigawa do exactly what he hopes to. After missing the cut at Saucon Valley this year, he stayed around for the weekend to support his friend, who ended up finishing T18 at 2-over.

"It's not life or death for me," said Hoops. "I have a great life here [in Arizona], my family and business are here so it's not the end of the world. If I make it through one of these years, I'll look at it as a 25-week golf vacation. It's a no-lose situation."

Results: U.S. Senior Open
MCSCTodd WhiteSpartanburg, SC073-75=148
MCTXTony SoerriesMontgomery, TX074-76=150
MCGADavid Noll, JrDalton, GA079-72=151
MCGAJack Larkin, Sr.Atlanta, GA077-74=151
MCGAWilliam MitchellAtlanta, GA082-70=152

View full results for U.S. Senior Open

ABOUT THE U.S. Senior Open

The U.S. Senior Open is one of 14 national championships conducted by the USGA. Open to amateurs and professionals who have reached their 50th birthday as of the first day of the championship.

The Senior Open was first played in 1980 with a purse of, get this, just $100,000. Roberto Vincenzo of Argentina was the inaugural champion (winning $20,000), and Arnold Palmer was a popular winner the following year in 1981 at Oakland Hills.

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