The Jones Cup Invitational is the first major amateur competition of 2011, and kicks off a tight race for the 10 spots on the U.S. Walker Cup team. The Jones Cup has been contested at Ocean Forest Golf Club since 2001, the same year the Sea Island club hosted the Walker Cup. Golfweek will be on site for the final two rounds of this 54-hole competition. Here are five things you need to watch for this weekend:
1. The stars. Eleven of the 16 participants in last month’s U.S. Walker Cup practice session will be in the field, most notably U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein, NCAA champion Scott Langley and Golfweek College Player of the Year Russell Henley. Defending champion Patrick Reed and Auburn’s Blayne Barber, who finished third at last year’s Jones Cup, are also in the field.
Other Jones Cup participants also at the Walker Cup practice session are Bud Cauley, Harris English, John Hahn, Andrew Putnam, Nathan Smith and Jordan Spieth. I’ve been hearing English, despite no major amateur victories, is a good bet to make the Walker Cup team because he’s a consistent contender and is well-liked by potential teammates and team selectors. Putnam, the younger brother of 2005 Walker Cup participant Michael Putnam, is coming off a victory at the Arizona Intercollegiate. He’s a solid contender to represent the Pacific Northwest on the team.
2. The weather. Ocean Forest is usually an idyllic setting. Not in February, though. Last year, contestants had to deal with extreme cold, high winds and rain, which explains Patrick Reed’s winning score of 6-over 222 (a score of 227 was good for a top 10). This year’s event may see similar weather. Friday’s projected high is 54 degrees, with a 50-percent chance of rain. There’s a 70-percent chance of rain Saturday. Sunday’s forecast is sunny with a high of 55. I saw just one player wear shorts last year: Kent State’s Hahn, an Ohio native who’s accustomed to the cold.
3. The mid-ams. There are some notable mid-ams teeing it up at the Jones Cup, including three-time U.S. Mid-Am champ Nathan Smith. Also in the field are former PGA Tour player and reinstated amateur John Engler, Clemson assistant coach Jordan Byrd (brother of PGA Tour player Jonathan Byrd), 2001 NCAA champ Nick Gilliam, Skip Berkmeyer (a match-play qualifier at last year’s U.S. Am) and Paul Simson, who last year became the first player to win the U.S., British and Canadian senior amateurs in a single season.
4. Junior players. Three of the past four U.S. Walker Cup squads have had an incoming college freshman on the roster (Casey Wittenberg, 2003; Brian Harman, 2005; Rickie Fowler, 2007). There’s a good chance another one could be on this year’s roster. The front-runners? Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Anthony Paolucci. All three have made the cut in a PGA Tour event and made the final of a U.S. Junior. Their amateur resumes are relatively thin as they’ve focused on junior competition, but that should change this year.
• Paolucci is the hot hand, coming off a T-29 at last week’s Farmers Insurance Open on the PGA Tour. He finished sixth at the 2010 Azalea Invitational, though. Paolucci is No. 1 in the Golfweek Junior Rankings and the 2010 AJGA player of the year. He was a finalist at the 2007 U.S. Junior.
• Spieth is the 2009 U.S. Junior champ who received national attention when he finished T-17 at last year’s Byron Nelson. Spieth finished 24th at last year’s Western Amateur and fifth at the 2010 Azalea Invitational. Spieth was the only junior invited to the Walker Cup practice session.
• Thomas, finalist at the 2010 U.S. Junior, made the cut in the 2009 Wyndham Championship. Though his PGA Tour finish wasn’t as high as Paolucci’s or Spieth’s, his amateur resume is slightly better than theirs. He won the 2010 Terra Cotta Invitational and made the second round of match play at last year’s U.S. Amateur after finishing fourth in stroke play. He also finished 11th at the Azalea.
5. The internationals. The Jones Cup attracts an international field, including several of Great Britain & Ireland’s best that the U.S. may face at this year’s Walker Cup. Included in that group are NCAA East Regional champ Rhys Enoch, British Amateur runner-up James Byrne, Oliver Farr and Eddie Pepperell.