FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE
Is the Elite Amateur Golf Series the rebirth of the amateur game?
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
Yes, the revolution in pro golf is alive and well and very noisy. But don’t ignore the sweeping changes taking place in amateur golf.
An elite contingent of amateur events is going to bring cohesion to the summer schedule. The seven powers that be — the Sunnehanna, Northeast, North & South, Trans-Miss, Southern, Pacific Coast and Western — have united to form a blockbuster circuit known as the Elite Amateur Golf Series.
While these tournaments have always been of interest to amateur golf diehards, the alliance brings a twist: the top-five finishers, who must play a minimum of three events, are rewarded with coveted exemptions: These five players earn U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open final qualifying exemptions (provided they remain an amateur) and a Korn Ferry Tour exemption (with preference given to the highest finishers). In addition, the top finisher will receive an exemption to the PGA Tour’s Butterfield Bermuda Championship and the player who finishes second on the points list will receive an exemption to the Tour’s Puerto Rico Open.
“Without question, the sum of the parts are stronger than each doing their own thing,” says John Yerger, co-chairman of the Sunnehanna. “This was long overdue.”
What began as conversations between officials from the Sunnehanna, Southern and Western quickly grew into a larger alliance. Although these events draw top amateurs, not every event is of identical strength; four events have qualifiers, while the rest operate as invitationals. Taken together, the alliance becomes a recognizable, summer-long lineup with tangible rewards.
The continuity of the series is also a good measure for the top of the talent pool. That made it an easy buy-in for the USGA. “We believe that the top finishers in this series are deserving of a spot in the U.S. Amateur,” says Brent Paladino, the senior director of championship administration.
The players are all-in too. “It’s a huge step in the right direction,” says Bryce Lewis, who won the series’s inaugural event, the Sunnehanna. Lewis is in second place, just one point behind Caleb Surratt.
But it’s not just a stage for seasoned college kids. Incoming Florida State freshman Luke Canton and Texas commit Tommy Morrison faced off for the North & South title — and relish the amped-up atmosphere. “There’s not as many putting contests after the round, not as many dinners with friends,” Morrison says. “Everyone is a little more serious and wants to play a little bit better.”
Spending the money to participate in a minimum of three events around the country for a chance to claim one of five spots might seem like a risky investment. (There are 94 U.S. Amateur qualifying sites that amateurs can play with a significantly smaller financial commitment.) Andy Priest, head of the Southern Golf Association and EAGS co-founder, says his team has been working in the background to identify players who need financial assistance, but the committee has larger goals. “If you cannot afford the entry fee or need help, please let us know,” the Sunnehanna website reads. “We don’t want anyone to be denied an opportunity due to financial concerns.”
Plenty of hungry amateurs are already knocking on the door, eager to reach that three-event minimum. The EAGS calls the demand to play its events “unprecedented,” with five tournaments confirming they have seen an increase in entries this summer. “Three years ago, we couldn’t fill a field of 75 players,” Yerger says. This year, 105 players competed in the Sunnehanna qualifier for six spots, with a whopping 60 on the waiting list.
To further highlight the amateurs, the summer events might be streamed on the internet. The finale, the Western Amateur, is the only tournament that is live-streamed, but Priest says with the right sponsors, the EAGS plans to bring every event on-line. (Though the young talent being nurtured by the EAGS would be appealing to LIV Golf, Priest says there have been no talks with the upstart circuit that has already cherry-picked a couple of top former amateurs.)
A parallel women’s series is in the works and could come as early as summer 2023. “Nothing’s off the table,” Priest says. “We want to make sure this is done in the right way.”
Although the notion of golf as a year-round sport has come into question on the professional level, golf as a year-round grind is the DNA of the amateur game. Most elite amateurs abide by a predetermined collegiate fall-spring slate, but they decide how to spend their summers and winter break. Opportunities for their allegiances are only increasing.
“Kids are digging in the dirt for one reason: to play on Tour,” Yerger says. “We can hopefully help them toward that goal.”