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Hallowed Muirfield to crown British Am champ

British Amateur Championship scores

Americans fall in British Am matches

GULLANE, Scotland – Take your pick of possible winners of this week’s British Amateur Championship.

There are lots to choose from.

Early this week, 288 players from 35 countries set out over Muirfield and North Berwick to seek spots in the match-play stages at Muirfield. The prize awaiting them? Golf’s equivalent of the lottery – spots in this year’s Open Championship at St. Andrews and the Masters next year.

Tommy Fleetwood, Henrik Norlander, Tom Lewis, Paul Cutler, Stiggy Hodgson, James Byrne, Chris Paisley and Andre Pavan are the strong favorites heading into the later match-play stages.

The smart money is on Fleetwood, considering his recent form in this event. The 19-year-old reached the final at Turnberry two years ago but lost the 36-hole decider to Dutchman Reinier Saxton. Last year, Fleetwood fought his way through to the quarterfinals before losing 2&1 to eventual winner Matteo Manassero of Italy.

The Englishman led the 36-hole qualifying with rounds of 70 at Muirfield and 65 at North Berwick. His 7-under 135 total made him medalist by two shots over Byrne, Lewis and England’s Ian Winstanley.

Needless to say, Fleetwood entered the match-play stages full of confidence.

“I’ve got pretty high expectations this week,” Fleetwood said. “I came here with the expectation of winning.

“Muirfield suits my game. The rough is pretty thick, so it’s a must to keep the ball on the fairway. I’m a good driver of the ball, so that helps me.”

The Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup player kept his ball in play pretty well in his opening match. He defeated fellow Englishman Andrew Shakespear 2&1.

Norlander is fresh from helping Augusta State win the NCAA Championship two weeks ago. The Swede cruised through his opening round, 5&3 over France’s Clement Sordet.

Paisley and Hodgson were fellow GB&I Walker Cup teammates of Fleetwood’s. Paisley spent four years at the University of Tennessee before returning to play full-time amateur golf. The diminutive Hodgson was the surprise package at last year’s Walker Cup, the only real bright spark in a dull GB&I performance.

Both made it through to the third round.

Cutler and Lewis also made it through to the third round. They both brought winning records into this championship. Lewis is one of the best young prospects in the British Isles. The youngster from Welwyn Garden City, England (Nick Faldo’s hometown) is the reigning British Boys champion. Cutler, meanwhile, won the Lytham Trophy last month, one of the four recognized majors of amateur golf in the British Isles.

Byrne is the highest-ranked Scottish amateur in the field at No. 20 on the R&A’s World Amateur Ranking list, a player much fancied to carry off this championship. The 21-year-old plays at Arizona State and says his game has benefited from three years of college golf.

Of course, the vagaries of match-play golf never guarantee that the best necessarily will prevail. Some past winners of this event have, frankly, left a lot to be desired.

Besides, with an international field that includes such strong players in the form of Jin Jeong of South Korea and Yuki Usami of Japan, anything can happen.

One thing’s sure: If Muirfield produces a champion like it did 12 years ago, then the world of golf will be far richer for it.

Sergio Garcia won the British Amateur Championship the last time it was staged at Muirfield, in 1998. A year later, the precocious Spaniard was competing for Europe in the Ryder Cup.

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