Thornberry leads loaded Western Amateur field

Writing from Chicago

Monday, July 30, 2018

Golf’s version of a time machine will be in action Tuesday through Saturday at Sunset Ridge Country Club in Northfield.

It’s the 116th edition of the Western Amateur, the annual scrap for golf glory and honor that opens with a PGA Tour-length stroke play tournament over three days, and then gets serious, with four rounds of match play to determine a champion.

All that takes place in a span of five days. It’s the most demanding format in the game, eight rounds climaxing with three straight days of 36 holes, more or less, for the champion and the runner-up. The struggle means the champion will be fit both mentally and physically. Those who wear out walking the course morning and afternoon will fade between the ears as well.

The list of winners since the Western Amateur went to this format in 1961 is an all-star lineup, starting with Jack Nicklaus, who ran through the field at New Orleans Country Club to capture the George Thorne Trophy and tune up for that year’s Masters at the same time.

These days, many consider the Western Am as a glorified tune-up for the U.S. Amateur, a fortnight hence, but it’s a title of considerable merit – the third-oldest amateur championship behind only the British and the U.S. – and an indicator of who’ll show well in pro golf.

Thus, the time machine analogy. This is the PGA Tour five or six – or fewer – years from now. The lineup this year includes four of the top nine players in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, and 15 of the top 35. That includes world No. 1 Braden Thornberry of Olive Branch, Miss., whose NCAA individual title in 2017 is impressive, and whose fourth-place finish in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Classic in Memphis is even more impressive, No. 3 Collin Morikawa of La Canada Flintridge, Calif. (a Walker Cup member last year), and No. 6 Chandler Phillips of Huntsville, Tex., an all-SEC selection last spring for his play at Texas A&M.

These are not household names now, but neither were Tom Weiskopf, Lanny Wadkins, Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange, Andy North, Hal Sutton or Justin Leonard when they won the Western Amateur – Sutton and Leonard scoring back-to-back victories. They all went on to stellar pro careers and annexed major championships.

So did, for that matter, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, who like Nicklaus were well-known amateurs at the time they scored their Western Am titles.

Last year’s champion, Norman Xiong, and runner-up, Doc Redman, have both turned pro, but four of last year’s quarterfinalists at Skokie Country Club, including ninth-ranked Min Woo Lee of Australia, are back for more. Also in the field are Andy Zhang of China, who won the 2018 SEC title playing for Florida, No. 27 Brad Dalke of Oklahoma, and Isaiah Salinda of South San Francisco, Calif., a Stanford standout who lives around the corner from the Olympic Club, where he won last week’s Pacific Coast Amateur on the Lake Course and rattled the foundation of that grand old club with a course-record 62 along the way.

Local flavor is provided by the presence of Patrick Flavin of Highwood, last year’s Illinois Open and Illinois Amateur winner, who has held off turning pro for a shot at the Western,  Jordan Hahn, the 6-foot-8 standout from Spring Grove who won the Illinois Amateur at Bloomington Country Club two weeks ago, and Charlie Nikitas, the left-hander from Glenview who is always a threat to go low.

Said Flavin, “I played in two Western Juniors and this is going to be my fourth Western Am. I've been around here quite a bit. But yeah, hopefully give myself a chance to make the Sweet Sixteen and get one of those wins. That would be awesome.”

The Sweet Sixteen is the match play field. Just to do that from the 156-player field is an achievement, and a harbinger of things to come. Since the Sweet Sixteen format began, 34 players getting to that stage have gone on to win 82 major championships, the most recent being Masters winner Patrick Reed, who advanced to match play in 2009.

Some Sweet Sixteen fields were incredibly loaded. Say, 1980, when Mark O’Meara, Fred Couples, Corey Pavin, Bob Tway and Sutton all made it and won in the first round, with Sutton knocking off Pavin to get to the semifinals. Or 1974, when Strange had Jerry Pate, Craig Stadler and Jay Haas in the field as well, and needed 20 holes to beat Haas, his Wake Forest teammate, in the title match.

That’s what we’ll see at Sunset Ridge this week. Admission is free, and this year, those who can’t make it in person can see the match-play rounds on streaming TV produced by Thaler Media for the Western Golf Association. Not since 1961, when some of Nicklaus’ exploits were televised locally in New Orleans, has the Western Amateur had live coverage. Click on,, or the Golf Channel mobile app for the live action on Friday (10 a.m.-1 p.m. CT and 3-6 p.m. CT), and Saturday (10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. CT, and beginning 1 p.m. CT for the title match).

“This is a significant step forward for us in showcasing our amateur championship and the world’s top amateurs who annually compete for the coveted title,” said John Kaczkowski, WGA president and CEO. “We’ve watched Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and many more compete in the Western Amateur. Now, golf fans everywhere will be able to watch golf’s future stars face off against one another in golf’s most rigorous test.”

Show up at Sunset Ridge or tune in, and you’ll get an eyeful.

Tim Cronin

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