Amateur hour: Cantlay, Matsuyama impress

Patrick Cantlay hits a shot out of the bunker on the second hole during the first round of the 2012 Masters.

Patrick Cantlay hits a shot out of the bunker on the second hole during the first round of the 2012 Masters.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Two amateurs from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean are in contention at Augusta National after shooting 1-under 71s in the first round of the Masters. Patrick Cantlay, the world's No. 1 amateur, and Hideki Matsuyama, the Asian Amateur champion, will begin Friday four strokes off Lee Westwood's lead.

Cantlay’s presence in professional events has become commonplace. Matsuyama’s continued success in this, the only tournament he plays in the mainland United States, is starting to feel familiar.

Matsuyama is in this year's Masters after successfully defending his Asian Amateur title. He tied for 27th here last year to earn low-amateur honors. He also won late last year on the Japan Tour, becoming the first amateur to win there since Ryo Ishikawa. Matsuyama’s finish last year was the best by an amateur at Augusta since Ryan Moore tied for 13th in 2005.

Cantlay, last year’s college player of the year, was low amateur at the U.S. Open (T-21), the start of five consecutive top-25s on the PGA Tour.

“I feel really comfortable playing in pro events,” said Cantlay, a UCLA sophomore. “I don’t feel quite as in awe as I did at the U.S. Open.”

Cantlay missed just four greens and three fairways Thursday and averaged 292 yards per tee shot. His comfort at Augusta National also can be ascribed to help from his peers at Virginia Country Club in Long Beach, Calif. They've had their success at Augusta National, most recently with John Merrick, who was sixth in 2009. Merrick told Cantlay to “embrace the week,” their swing instructor, Jamie Mulligan, said.

It’s been seven years since multiple amateurs have made the cut at the Masters. That could change this year. Kelly Kraft, the U.S. Amateur champion, shot 74; he double-bogeyed the first hole, but birdied Nos. 12-15 before bogeying the last two. U.S. Amateur Public Links champ Corbin Mills also shot 74.

This is Cantlay’s first Masters. He’s also exempt into the U.S. Open and Open Championship for his amateur accomplishments. Matsuyama is the rare amateur in recent times to make consecutive Masters appearances.

Matsuyama’s success here has been of infinite importance to the Asian Amateur, which Augusta National helped start in 2009, by showing that the Asian Am can produce a champion worthy of an invaluable Masters invitation.

He missed just two fairways and hit 10 of 18 greens Thursday. He averaged 290.5 yards per tee shot. He got to 2 under par, one shot off the lead at the time, before pushing his approach into chairs right of the 18th green and making bogey.

“I’m really glad to have the good results in the first round,” Matsuyama said, “but at the same time I see so many improvements that I have to make.”

Tom Watson, who’s used to playing with impressive amateurs in major championships, spoke highly of Matsuyama. Watson was paired with Matteo Manassero and Tom Lewis at the 2009 and 2011 Open Championships, respectively, when each earned low-amateur honors.

“He’s a very solid player. He hits the ball high, he knows what to do with the ball, he can shape the ball when he wants to,” Watson said of Matsuyama. “He’s raw, but he’s good. There’s a lot of talent in that young man.”

The same could be said of several amateurs in this year’s Masters.

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