Shackelford: Changes needed to boost U.S. Amateur

USGA

Shackelford: Changes needed to boost U.S. Amateur

Amateur

Shackelford: Changes needed to boost U.S. Amateur

Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the Aug. 21, 2017 digital edition of Golfweek Magazine.

LOS ANGELES – U.S. Walker Cup captain Spider Miller says it was the greatest match he’s ever seen. If the ghosts of Riviera could talk, they might rank Doc Redman’s 37th-hole victory over Doug Ghim as the craziest battle yet at a place that’s seen its share of history.

Redman v. Ghim might even go down as the U.S. Amateur that saved the event. With its Sunday ending, the world’s foremost amateur championship once again took a backseat all week to the Solheim Cup, Wyndham Championship and even NFL preseason football. The final match’s first 18 holes were given to USGA.org by broadcast partner Fox Sports, which aired Bundesliga soccer instead.

The programming choice was especially unfortunate when considering just how strong the play was at Riviera. Finalists Redman and Ghim closed their morning back nine a combined 9-under-par before their sensational back-and-forth afternoon ended a special week. Mercifully, the finish aired on Fox in Eastern prime time and a nice audience hopefully got to see just how awesome amateur golf can be. Before Sunday’s final, however, the proceedings were not short on strangeness.

The U.S. Golf Association, Riviera and stroke-play co-host Bel-Air treated the competitors like kings and executed a near-perfect championship. The weather was wonderful for the families and friends who saw their hard-working sons play a legendary venue. But a special energy was missing.

USGA officials have long said the Amateur is their favorite week of the year. Yet the turnout from Far Hills headquarters seemed light, and the early-week proceedings feel more like a combine, with agents and manufacturer reps outnumbering spectators. Worse, the agents hang on the parents of top players like leeches, and the club reps stand at tee box entrances to make sure they’re seen.

Combine this bit of impurity with the incredible maturity and depth of modern amateur golf, and the entire thing often felt like a fancy college event.

The fixes may be tricky with the notoriously stubborn USGA that hates to admit pro golf runs the game. But as NCAA coaches will tell you, the fairly recent return of their championships to television with a more exciting match-play format has pumped new life into their sport. The same thing can happen with the Amateur if the USGA is willing to budge on a few fronts.

It may be time to cave on the policy of rescinding the U.S. Open and other USGA exemptions earned by the U.S. Amateur finalists if they turn professional. The USGA actually put the U.S. Open trophy on Riviera’s first tee in an attempt to deflect attention from the coveted Masters exemption going to semifinal winners. Naturally, the Masters invite was all Ghim and Redman could think about after advancing. The U.S. Open was less of a certainty for both.

The days of the career amateur winning this event appear over. So why cling to the hope of forcing a player to remain an amateur when the visibility of a pairing with the defending U.S. Open champion and British Open winner brings enormous attention to the U.S. Amateur?

Given that Redman is 19, he may retain his amateur status and tee it up at Shinnecock Hills with Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth. But recent history suggests the amateur winner will give up the exemption and cash in on his victory. And who cares at this point given that players are wearing corporate logos galore in the U.S. Amateur anyway?

The USGA also may have to make better use of the World Amateur Golf Ranking and rethink the U.S. Amateur format. It hasn’t changed since 1979, when 36 holes of qualifying was introduced. To incentivize amateurs to build resumes in top events and to hang around for the Amateur instead of turning pro after the NCAAs, perhaps the answer is to exempt the top 16 after the Western Amateur into match play.

The USGA also needs more help from its partners at Fox, who should televise the final’s morning 18 to prevent missing some of the key moments that decide who wins the Havemeyer Trophy. The two sides should consider ending the tournament on a Monday or Tuesday to avoid competing with other sports, and may even want to move the Amateur up the summer calendar to get away from the current date.

Everything should be in play to breathe life into one of the golf world’s most important titles. As Redman and Ghim proved in a classic, the U.S. Amateur is too cool not to be a higher-profile event.

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