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Walker Cup on minds of many at U.S. Amateur

By Ryan Herrington

BROOKLINE, Mass.—To borrow from one of golf's great cliches, you can't win the U.S. Amateur in the first round of match play, you can only lose it, as 32 lonely souls were sadly able to attest Wednesday at The Country Club.
 
But I wonder about a corollary bit of zen: If you can't win the championship in Round 1, can you at least secure a spot on the Walker Cup team?

A handful of eager but anxious candidates hoping to be among the final five selections to the U.S. side that plays next month against Great Britain & Ireland at National GL of America were wondering the very same thing this afternoon on the historic course outside of Boston. Although winning a national championship is first and foremost for the players remaining in the field, for the 44 Americans who made it to match play, representing your country in the most prestigious team event in amateur golf isn't far behind.

Particularly for the five golfers many believe to be on the short list for the remaining spots on captain Jim Holtgrieve's squad: Michael Weaver, Bobby Wyatt, Brandon Hagy, Jordan Niebrugge and Sean Dale.

While perhaps surprisingly four of the five players already picked for this year's team failed to advance out of stroke-play qualifying Monday and Tuesday (only Patrick Rodgers made it to match play), the fivesome believed to be under the closest consideration for the remaining spots all found a way to go from the original 312 to the surviving 64, an impressive start to the week.

By Wednesday night, however, only two were had more golf to play.
Wyatt, an All-American at Alabama, defeated Rico Hoey, 4 and 3, while Hagy, a semifinalist at last year's Amateur and a rising senior at California, beat Ricardo Gouveia in 19 holes.

"You're thinking about it. I'm not going to lie," said Hagy of the Walker Cup berths still up for grabs. "It's a huge goal of mine. I've played really well this summer. I haven't had quite as many low finishes as I wanted. Hopefully matches like today show how gritty I am in match play."

Indeed, Hagy watched with bewildered amusement as his opponent made three putts of 30 or more feet on the day—including a 30-footer to save par and extend the match on the 18th hole—as well as holing out a bunker shot to win a hole. But Hagy's experience in match play (he won his first-round match a year ago after being 2 down with two holes to play) helped settle his nerves and keep him focused as he claim an eventual win.

Wyatt, too, is earning a reputation as a match-play specialist, something that could bode well for making the Walker Cup team. He went 2-0-1 for the Crimson Tide in helping the them claim the NCAA championship in June, then went 3-0-1 in lifting the U.S. to a victory in the Palmer Cup against a team of European collegians. Last year he was medalist at the U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills, losing to college teammate Justin Thomas (one of the five already on the U.S. Walker Cup team) in the third round.

"This week I'm better than I've been," Wyatt said when asked about whether making the Walker Cup becomes a distraction while playing. "It's been weighing on me this summer a little bit. I've been doing a better job. It's out of my control."

Even more so now for Weaver, Niebrugge and Dale. Weaver fell to Greg Eason, 3 and 2; Niebrugge was beaten by Seth Reeves, 1 up; and Dale got knocked out by Rodgers, 3 and 2. All must now wait and hope they've done enough to impress the USGA International Team Selection Committee, which is expected to announce the remaining five players shortly after the end of the Amateur.

"It's a difficult process," said Rodgers, who knows what they're going through, having been one of the last players choose for the 2011 American team. "It's a little bit of a secretive process. You never who where you stand."

Entering into the equation this year as well is the fact that while five spot have yet to be claimed, at least two of those will go to mid-amateur golfers after the USGA announced in January that it was reserving spots for players 25 and older. Additionally, the winner of the U.S. Amateur, if American, is guaranteed a spot on the team, meaning that just two "at-large" picks might really be available, three at the most.

"I felt like I've played pretty consistent from this tournament," said Weaver, the 2012 U.S. Amateur runner-up who earned first-team All-American honors for California in the 2012-13 season. "I think that's something worthwhile to consider if they're looking to pick me. Hopefully it works out that way." Moreover, the factthat  Weaver's opponent, Eason, is himself a first-team All-American at UCF, he hopes will be taken into the equation.

Niebrugge's bid to make the team might be the most interesting. By his own admission, his record didn't necessarily warrant consideration up until mid-July when the Wisconsin native who just wrapped up his freshman year at Oklahoma State won the U.S. Amateur Public Links title. Three weeks later he added the Western Amateur crown, raising the specter that he might "steal" one of the remaining spots after winning 10 straight matches.

The streak came to an end against Reeves, who Niebrugge beat at the Western Amateur. Niebrugge had a 1-up lead through the 13th hole, but lost the next three with bogeys to find himself 2 down with two holes to play. Niebrugge birdied the 17th hole, his first of the day, to extend the match to the 18th. But, after hitting the fairway off the tee, he caught his 7-iron approach heavy and left himself his second fried-egg bunker lie in three holes. When he was unable to get up and down for par, Reeves secured the win.    

"It's been a fun run," Niebrugge said of his summer.

And what about the possibility of extending it with a Walker Cup appearance?

"If I make it, great," Niebrugge said.

And if not, well he sure had a lot of fun trying.

Which is more than some of the guys on the bubble can say.

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July 28, 2014

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