2012 in review: Top 10 men's amateur storylines

Steven Fox yells as he sinks his putt at the 37th hole to win the 112th U. S. Amateur Championship at Cherry Hills Country Club in Cherry Hills Village, Colo. He defeated Michael Weaver on the 37th hole.

Steven Fox yells as he sinks his putt at the 37th hole to win the 112th U. S. Amateur Championship at Cherry Hills Country Club in Cherry Hills Village, Colo. He defeated Michael Weaver on the 37th hole.

There were plenty of good stories that came out of amateur golf this past season, exciting, happy endings as well as disappointing, heart-breaking endings.

From Steven Fox winning the U.S. Amateur, to Nathan Smith capturing a record fourth U.S. Mid-Amateur to a 14-year-old from China qualifying for next year’s Masters -- and a whole lot more along the way.

I’ve been covering amateur golf at just about every level for some 30 years and it seems each year provides its own share of interesting stories, whether in victory or defeat.

Compiling a list of the best of them for 2012 was difficult, but here is a list of my top 10:

• • •

10. Tianlang Guan wins Asian Amateur

It isn’t so much at China’s Tianiang Guan won the Asia-Pacific Amateur title at age 14, but more so what the victory will mean to the youngster come next spring.

The win earned the teenager an invitation to compete at the Masters in April at Augusta National Golf Club. When he tees it up in the first round on that Thursday, he will be 14 years, five months and 17 days old to become the youngest participant in tournament history. The previous record was held by Matteo Manassero in 2010 when the 16-year-old gained an invitation after capturing the 2009 British Amateur Championship.

Guan earned his Masters berth with a one-shot victory over Taiwan’s Cheng-Tsung Pan, after finishing at 15-under 273 (66-64-72-71) at Amata Spring Country Club in Bangkok, Thailand. He won wire-to-wire, leading by two shots after the first round, five shots at the halfway point and two shots heading into the final round. He was the youngest player in the field this week.

“I’m so excited. I’m really happy to become the youngest player at the Masters and looking forward to going there. I don’t know what’s going to happen there, but I know I just want to do well,” Guan said shortly after his win.

Guan is the first Asia-Pacific Amateur winner from China. He’ll be the second 14-year-old from China to appear in a major after Andy Zhang qualified for the 2012 U.S. Open.

• • •

9. Peter Williamson's big summer

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You don’t usually hear much about golfers from Dartmouth, especially on the national amateur level. That changed this past summer when recent grad and three-time Ivy League champion Peter Williamson of Hanover, N.H., made a huge name for himself.

Williamson captured titles in two of the most long running, tradition-rich amateur events in the country. He won the North & South Amateur at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort. A couple of weeks later laid claim to the Southern Amateur crown, outlasting Alabama All-American Bobby Wyatt when he sank a 25-foot birdie putt on the third hole of a sudden-death playoff at Chenal Country Club in Little Rock, Ark.

The following month he tied for 10th in the 72-hole stroke-play portion of the prestigious Western Amateur at Exmoor Country Club just outside Chicago to advance to the Sweet 16 where he advanced to the semifinals of match play before bowing out on the 20th hole against Jordan Russell, a recent Texas A&M grad.

Later in the month he qualified for match play in the U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver, but lost in the opening round 3 and 2 to then top-ranked Chris Williams.

• • •

8. Big comeback propels Rhys Pugh

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Rhys Pugh, a sophomore at East Tennessee State from Wales, shot a closing-round 66 to win the European Amateur at Carton House’s Montgomerie course. It was an incredible comeback as Pugh trailed by eight shots going into the final day.

Pugh’s winning total was 11-under 277 and he won by one stroke over fellow countryman James Frazer, who came in with an impressive 62 in the previous day’s third round.

• • •

7. Chris Williams follows through at Western Am

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For the second consecutive year, Chris Williams, a senior at Washington, set a tournament record in the 72-hole stroke-play qualifying segment of the Western Amateur, this time topping his old mark with a 17-under 271 score. Unlike the previous year when he lost his opening match, Williams went on to win all four of his matches to claim the title in the 110th Western Am at Exmoor County Club just outside Chicago.

He clinched the title with a 1-up victory over recent Texas A&M grad Jordan Russell in the 18-hole championship match.

Williams became the first player to win both medalist and championship honors since Danny Lee in 2008. Prior to that, Bubba Dickerson (he shared medalist honors with Matthew Abbott) accomplished the feat in 2001.

• • •

6. Daan Huizing wins Lytham Trophy

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Daan Huizing became the first player from The Neatherlands to win the prestigious Lytham Trophy, one of the premier amateur tournaments in Europe.

He did it most impressively and in style to boot.

Huizing defeated Germany’s Moritz Lampert by 11 strokes, finishing at 7-under 273 at the par-70 Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s Golf Club in England.

It was the second-best winning total behind James Heath’s 18-under 266 in 2004.

• • •

5. U.S. wins Eisenhower Trophy for 14th time

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The United States, with a record-setting score of 24-under 404, won the weather-shortened World Amateur Team Championship (WATC) by five strokes over Mexico at the par-71 Antalya (Turkey) Golf Club and claimed the Eisenhower Trophy for the 14th time.

In the final, title-clinching round, Steven Fox, of Hendersonville, Tenn., the 2012 U.S. Amateur champion and Chris Williams, of Moscow, Idaho, No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR), both shot 2-under 69 for the U.S. Justin Thomas, of Goshen, Ky., and the freshman and player of the year at Alabama last season, posted a non-counting 1-under 70.

“It has been since 2004 that the trophy has found its way to the USA and it is great to have it coming back to our shores,” said U.S. captain Jim Vernon afterward. “They are three guys who bonded well and played golf as a team.”

The previous low total for 54 holes was 407 by the USA in Puerto Rico in the 2004 WATC, which was also played at 54 holes because of weather.

“It’s fun to win as an individual,” said Williams, a University of Washington senior who won the 2012 Western Amateur. “But to win as a team is awesome and it doesn’t get any better than doing it as representative of the USA.”

• • •

4. Florida's T.J. Vogel wins Public Links

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T.J. Vogel, from Cooper City, Fla. and a senior at Florida, made the most impressive statement of his young amateur career when he defeated fellow Floridian Kevin Aylwin 12 and 10 in the scheduled 36-hole final and captured the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Soldier Hollow Golf Club in Midway, Utah.

So impressive was Vogel that he never lost a hole and was 10-up after the morning session’s first 18 holes. Just how good was Vogel playing? Consider that Aylwin sank a pair of 20-foot putts and had a chip-in and was still 10-down through the morning.

“I had that feeling today,” Vogel said afterward. “I can’t tell you why, I just knew I was going to play well. There was just no way (he felt) I was going to lose.”

And to win in the manner in which he did, Vogel simply said, “This isn’t real.”

Yes, T.J., it was and so to is the invitation to compete in the 2013 Masters that goes along with the victory.

The final score marked the second largest margin of victory in USGA competition in a 36-hole final next to the 12-and-11 marks set by C.B. Macdonald in the first U.S. Amateur Championship in 1895 and matched by Jim Sorenson in the 1995 U.S. Amateur Public Links.

• • •

3. Alan Dunbar wins British Amateur Championship

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Alan Dunbar, 23, of Northern Ireland, defeated Austria’s Matthias Schwab, 1-up, to capture the British Amateur Championship at Royal Troon Golf Club in Scotland.

Along with the prestigious title is an invitation to compete this coming April in the Masters for Dunbar, who won the 2009 St. Andrews Links Trophy, the 2010 Irish Amateur and in 2011 helped lead the Great Britain and Irleand team to victory over the United States in the Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen (Scotland) Golf Club.

“I struggled with the long game as the week went on and I had to rely on my putting,” said Dunbar afterward. “It (putting) definitely came through for me. This is just so sweet.”

Dunbar became the third Northern Ireland winner of this championship, following Michael Hoey in 2001 and Garth McGimpsey in 1985.

• • •

2. Nathan Smith wins U.S. Mid-Am for fourth time

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Nathan Smith, 34, of Pittsburgh, made USGA history when he captured his fourth U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, defeating Garrett Rank, 25, of Canada, 1-up, in the 36-hole final match at Conway Farms Golf Club just outside Chicago.

Adding to the special moment for Smith was having his father Larry as his caddie. Larry, 64 and a retired school teacher, has been Nathan’s caddie in each of his U.S. Mid-Amateur victories (2003, ‘09, ‘10, and ‘12).

Previously, Smith shared the distinction of most Mid-Am victories with Jay Sigel at three. Now he stands alone in this championship, first held in 1981, for those 25 years and older.

“It’s pretty surreal, actually,” said Smith, who has been a member of the U.S. team at the last two Walker Cup competitions. “Anytime you can say you’ve done something no one else has done, whether it’s in sport or in life, it’s just amazing.”

Rank, a 2012 graduate at the University of Waterloo in Canada, also was trying to make U.S. Mid-Am history as both the first foreign-born champion as well as the youngest winner. He turned 25 three days before the start of the championship. He would have upstaged Smith, who holds that distinction when he won in 2003 at 25 years, 2 months.

Smith, who did not play in this championship in 2004 and 2005 due to injuries and getting married on Labor Day weekend in 2005, now has four victories in his eight starts. His match-play record in this event is 32-4, a remarkable .889 winning percentage.

“Yeah, that’s hard to believe,” Smith said. “The competition is just so tough. To win four of these championships . . . wow.”

So, for the fourth time, the name Nathan Smith is etched onto the Robert T. Jones Jr. Memorial Mid-Amateur Trophy. And, this coming April, for the fourth time, Smith will be competing in the Masters.

• • •

1. Steven Fox outlasts Michael Weaver at U.S. Amateur

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Steven Fox, 21, of Hendersonville, Tenn., and a senior at Chattanooga, erased a 2-down deficit with two holes to play and then sank a downhill, twisting 15-foot birdie putt on the 37th hole to beat Michael Weaver and win the 112th U.S. Amateur Championship at famed Cherry Hills Country Club just outside Denver.

For Weaver, a redshirt junior at California, it was a most heart-wrenching defeat. He had a chance to win it all on the 36th hole with a 5-foot birdie putt. Then he -- and the large crowd gathered around the 18th green -- watched in total disbelief as the ball seemingly fell into the hole, only to spin out of the cup.

Coming into the event, Fox wasn’t on anyone’s list to hoist the Havenmeyer Trophy as champion when all was said and done -- himself included.

On the national scene, however, his most notable performance came earlier this summer when he advanced to the Sweet 16 at the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship.

So, with a 103rd position in last season’s Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings and a 127th spot in the World Amateur Golf Ranking coming into the week, there was no need to consider Fox a threat to become the 2012 U.S. Amateur champion.

But time and again during the week he overcame the odds against him, as he displayed down the stretch in that final match.

Fox had to make a 10-foot par putt on the fourth extra hole to earn the No. 63 (of 64) seed from a 17-player-for-14-spots playoff to get into match play.

He hardly raised any eyebrows in winning this first three matches, not defeating anyone higher in the WAGR than No. 2,367 Doug Hanzel, 55, in the second round.

Then the 6-foot-3, 155-pound Fox made everyone stand back and take notice as he pulled off -- and most impressively for that matter -- the biggest upset in this year’s championship. He stunned world No. 1 Chris Williams, who earlier in the month was the record-setting, 72-hole stroke play medalist and champion at the Western Amateur, 4 and 2.

A day later, Fox made his way into the finals when he defeated Weaver’s California junior teammate Brandon Hagy, 2-up.

And in that final match he was a perfect picture of never-give-up determination. Until he made that final putt, he had not held the lead since the fourth hole of the morning session. He’d get down but was never out, that being most evident in the last three holes.

Fox said that while he didn’t have overly high expectations coming into the week, he felt his game was moving up the competition barometer.

“My goal coming in was to make match play in my first U.S. Amateur,” Fox said after claiming the prestigious title. “Then I just kept going and going. It’s awesome. I knew I could compete at a high level, I just wasn’t sure where that level was going to be.

“This whole week is like a dream to me,” Fox said. “This is unreal. I mean, it doesn’t even feel real.”

It was real and so is the fact that Fox, and Weaver as well, earned spots in the starting fields at the 2013 Masters and U.S. Open. Fox also gets a starting position in the Open Championship.

This was, by far, the story of stories in amateur golf in 2012.

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