News & ToursJuly 3, 2007

What's become of the WAPL?

__LEXINGTON, KY.--__The USGA concluded the 31st U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship recently at Kearney Hill GL. And as one of the couple hundred people in attendance, I can attest that they indeed gave out the Robert F. Dwyer Trophy to 17-year-old Mina Harigae, a high school senior-to-be from Monterey, Calif., who cruised to a 4-and-3 triumph in the 36-hole final over Stephany Fleet thanks to stellar ball striking and one hot putter. What I can't swear to, however, is that I saw what the folks in Far Hills, N.J., had hoped might happen when they created the event in 1977.

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I have lamented previously regarding my disappointment that the men's Amateur Public Links no longer really showcases working-class public-course golfers, but instead has turned into an event for high school and college kids. The same, unfortunately, is the case with the WAPL.

Consider that the average age of the 156-player field this past week was 20.3. And that's including the fact 62-year-old Taffy Brower, a noted career amateur, playing in the competition for the first time. When the cut to match play's 64 came Wednesday morning, the remaining players were all of 18.3 years old.

It's hard to get past the fact that no one older than 23 has ever won the tournament (Amy Fruhwirth in 1992). And for the fifth high school player to win since 2000.

Fleet, who grew up next to a small course in DeWitt, Mich., where she learned to play the game, at least provided some tangible current ties to public golf. For the past four summers the Eastern Michigan junior-to-be has worked in the "bag services area" at a pair of daily-fee courses, Hawk Hollow and Eagle Eye, using downtime to hone her home-made swing that has a bit of a Jim Thorpe, wristy finish. This was Fleet's first USGA event, having survived a playoff in sectional qualifying to make the field. When she found out she was exempt now into the U.S. Women's Amateur, the look of surprise was obvious. She says she'll bring the running shoes she wore this past week (to keep her feet comfortable with so many rounds to play) and give it another shot.

I have nothing against Harigae, who has been making headlines for her play ever since she won her first California Women's Amateur title at age 12 (she was too young to compete for the junior title). She does not come from a country-club background, her parents run a Japanese restaurant in Pacific Grove, Calif., and she has worked hard for her success (this was amazingly her 13th USGA event, and she'll play No. 14 this week at the U.S. Women's Open). It's just that I'm not sure a player who works with an instructor at the Butch Harmon School of Golf, going to Las Vegas once a month, is exactly what the spirit of the WAPL intended.

Maybe I just need to get over this, and accept that the men's and women's mid-amateurs have become what the PubLinks once were. Of course, the problem with that is many of the top mid-amateurs, particularly on the men's side are actually reinstated professionals, but that's a whole other issue. It's just that watching the days of the working Joe (or Jane) have a chance to claim a national title now slip away is kind of sad.

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