2004: Clash of the amateur titans

By Dave Seanor

Golf will be deprived of a much-anticipated showdown if Ryan Moore and Spencer Levin don’t square off at some point next week at Winged Foot during the U.S. Amateur.

They’ve been nearly unbeatable this summer.

Moore has won the Western Amateur, the U.S. Public Links, the Sahalee Players Championship and was individual winner at the NCAA Championships. Levin was co-runner-up at the Pacific Coast Amateur (losing in a playoff) after finishing tied for 13th at the U.S. Open, capturing the California Amateur and Scratch Players Amateur, coming in second at the Southern Amateur and winning the Porter Cup.

Both are West Coast products, Moore from the Tacoma suburb of Puyallup, Wash., and Levin from Elk Grove, Calif. Both compete in the Mountain West Conference, Moore for UNLV, Levin at New Mexico. They’re similar physically, Levin at 5-foot-9, 155 pounds and Moore slightly shorter but broader through the shoulders. Moore generates power with aggressive hip rotation; Levin has an uncomplicated effective swing.

Moore is a former soccer star; the only time Levin runs is to the store for cigarettes. Moore is deliberate and dispassionate on the course. Levin wastes no time over the ball, and his rounds often are peppered with expletives. Both are fierce competitors, but show it in different ways.

Moore is a shoo-in to be included on the squad that will represent the United States in October at the World Amateur Team Championships in Puerto Rico. U.S. Golf Association officials would love to have a player of Levin’s ability on the squad – this is a kid who began the first round of the Pacific Coast Amateur with seven 3s in a row – but are wary of his history of immature behavior. He’s been watched closely all summer.

So Levin has been a model citizen of late, although he nearly regressed at the PCA, coming close to bolting before the awards ceremony. As the other top finishers sat waiting in a drizzle, tournament officials tracked down Levin in the parking lot, and he wisely changed his mind. (Nice save, Spence.)

Unlike many top collegians, Moore and Levin have not played an exhausting summer schedule. Neither comes from a wealthy family, so extensive travel wasn’t in the cards.

On the flip side, another U.S. Amateur champ could emerge from the contingent of Australians who’ve been criss-crossing this country and playing so well this summer – no doubt inspired by Nick Flanagan’s victory last year at Oakmont. (Flanagan won’t defend his title, having turned professional after the British Open).

Aron Price, Andrew McKenzie and Bronson LaCassie qualified for Winged Foot, while fellow Aussies Neven Basic and Adam Porker were first alternates from their qualifiers. Price showed how explosive he can be at the Western Amateur, shooting a Point O’Woods Golf & Country Club course-record 61 in the fourth round of medal play.

(Reigning Australian Amateur champ Andrew Martin, who also was in the Pacific Coast Amateur playoff, didn’t try to qualify. He played in the Canadian Amateur last week before heading home to Melbourne.)

Moore, Levin and the Aussies won’t be the only players to watch at Winged Foot, of course. Trip Kuehne says he’s driven to be the country’s best amateur, but hasn’t chosen to tee it up against the young guns very often this summer. As someone wryly suggested at the Pacific Coast Amateur, you can’t get to No. 1 by beating up on a bunch of car salesmen on the cocktail circuit.

Now that Michael Putnam has a breakthrough victory at the PCA to his credit, we’ll see if he can parlay it into further success. The easygoing Putnam, a 6-foot-4, 205-pounder who plays for Pepperdine University, was a winner waiting to happen, with top-10 finishes this year at the NCAA Division I Championship, the Sunnehanna Amateur and the Northeast Amateur.

Other contestants of note are Sam Saunders, grandson of Arnold Palmer, who this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of his U.S. Amateur victory; Kevin Hall, the deaf Big 10 champion from Ohio State; Mu Hu, a 14-year-old Leadbetter Academy student from China; and Jim Lehman, brother/agent of Tom Lehman.

It’s bombers like Putnam and Kuehne who cause the folks who run elite amateur events to moan so loudly about the distances today’s players hit the ball. Yet they’re resigned to the fact that, for better or for worse, the game has changed. Thus course setups continue to get tougher, with the unfortunate effect of pretty much eliminating mid-ams from the contender equation.

John Kaczkowski, tournament director for the Western Golf Association, says the way Point O’Woods was set up this year compared with when he joined the WGA only six years ago is “night and day.”

“For instance, in 1998 we never ever would have thought of using the back tee at No. 3,” he said. “It’s a par 5 for the members. We convert it to a par 4. We used to play it at 434 yards. It was really a big debate whether we should go back to 470. Now it’s like, maybe we should push it back to 490.”

Similarly, the 485-yard eighth hole at Eugene Country Club was a par 4 during the Pacific Coast Amateur.

Kaczkowski said the WGA contends with the distance issue by presenting contestants with more difficult hole locations. At Point O’Woods’ 16th hole, the cup in Round 1 was cut three paces beyond the ridge that bisects the two-tiered green.

“We wouldn’t have done something like that in the past,” Kaczkowski said. “But it’s a 425-yard hole. In the past they were hitting 6- or 7-irons; now they’re hitting 8- and 9-irons.

What the USGA has in store for players at Winged Foot is anyone’s guess. Still stinging from criticism about conditions at Shinnecock Hills for the U.S. Open, it was a kinder, gentler USGA that set up the U.S. Women’s Open and U.S. Senior Open. But the U.S. Amateur also serves as a litmus test for upcoming U.S. Opens.

The folks at Oakmont were charting the landing and rollout of tee shots on several holes during last year’s Amateur to determine where bunkers should be relocated for the 2007 Open. Winged Foot’s resistance to scoring will be closely watched, too, since the Open returns there in 2006.

The power game may be here to stay, but championships always will be won by keeping it in the short stuff. Few amateurs can match Moore and Levin, both straight hitters, in that category.

Just another reason why a face-off between them would be such a terrific show.

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