2003: (Good) Yankees needed overseas

Hertfordshire, England

The wheels of progress are turning just a bit quicker within the walls of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club’s imposing sandstone headquarters. That spells good news for the British Amateur Championship, because it could lead to an American winner – something that hasn’t happened since 1979 at the game’s oldest nonpaying tournament. For the record, Jay Sigel won that year.

After 2005, The Amateur, as it’s known on this side of the puddle, will be held two weeks later than its current early June date. This shift might not sound like the most drastic move ever made, but it should help restore the British Amateur Championship to its rightful place as the preeminent tournament for unpaid golfers.

Only one question remains: What took so long?

The British Amateur now clashes with the NCAA Championships, which keeps top American amateurs from playing the British Amateur and also prevents the participation of many top European amateurs who play for U.S. colleges.

I’ve been covering the British Amateur Championship since 1994. In that time I have never come across someone I would consider a top American player. What I have seen for the most part is a bunch of U.S. guys who struggle to break 80.

The problem became most apparent two years ago at Prestwick when only four of the 49 American amateurs made it through to match play. The average American qualifying score that year was 76.96. The cut fell at 2-over-par 145. The average American score was nearly 9 shots worse at 153.92.

Scoring was even more miserable last year at Royal Porthcawl, Wales. There were 31 Americans in the field, and only two made it to match play. The average American score was a nosebleed 79.61. The cut fell at a generous 149, 7-over-par. Yet the average American competitor missed that mark by 10 shots.

The problem, of course, is that the Americans currently showing up at the British Amateur are Division II and III players, or mid-amateurs with absolutely no chance of winning.

The British Amateur Championship is fortunate to list a number of American winners, including Walter Travis, Jess Sweetser, Bobby Jones, Lawson Little, Frank Stranahan, Harvie Ward, Deane Beman, Steve Melnyk, Dick Siderowf, Vinny Giles and Sigel. They were worthy winners, and more importantly, they were the best the United States had to offer.

Since Sigel’s victory, the chances of an American winner have been about as good as a woman becoming a member of Augusta National. Only three Americans have made it to the championship match since 1979.

I feel cheated. Over the last eight years I should have been watching players such as Matt Kuchar, David Gossett, Charles Howell, Troy Matteson and even Tiger Woods and Justin Leonard. Instead I’ve been watching Joe Hacker from Anywhere, USA.

I also haven’t seen some of the top British and other European amateurs. For example, Luke Donald never played in his own national championship because he was always playing for Northwestern in the NCAAs (Donald was individual champion in 1999). Paul Casey played just once in the British Amateur, teeing it up in 1996 at Turnberry when he was an 18-year-old junior.

It’s hard to imagine the USGA allowing a situation in which the top American amateurs did not play in the U.S. Amateur.

“I never got a chance to play in the British Amateur when I was playing my best amateur golf,” Casey said. “It was something that we wanted when we were playing college golf. We suggested it to various people and they were aware of it at the time, but nothing ever happened.”

Donald agrees: “I wish they would’ve (changed the British Amateur dates) 10 years ago, so I could’ve played. Winning it gives you a chance to play in the Masters and stuff like that, so, especially being from England, it would have been nice to have gone over there.”

Former Walker Cup captain Peter McEvoy won the British Amateur in 1977 and 1978, when the best American players still played the event. He supports moving the date.

“Anytime you have the best players on show has to provide for good competition,” McEvoy said.

So here’s to the R&A for finally getting its act together.

I’m looking forward to watching the true international stars of the amateur game at Royal St. George’s in 2006. I’m even looking forward to writing about the first American winner of the tournament in 27 years.

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