IF THE FIELD FOR THIS YEAR'S PLAYERS AMATEUR SEEMS ESPECIALLY TOUGH, THAT'S BECAUSE IT TENDS TO HAPPEN IN ODD YEARS — BETTER KNOWN IN AMATEUR GOLF CIRCLES AS WALKER CUP YEARS.
The world's best amateurs will tee up in the Lowcountry for the 16th consecutive year when the Players Amateur moves to Berkeley Hall Club’s North Course for the first time from July 9-12, and with Walker Cup invitations likely hanging in the balance, the competition should be as steamy as a South Carolina summer.
The Walker Cup, the prestigious biennial match play event between the best amateurs from the United States and the top amateurs from Great Britain and Ireland is slated for Sept. 12-13 at Royal Lytham and St. Annes Golf Club in Lancashire, England, and that means the nation's best amateurs are hoping to building their case for a spot on the team this summer.
For some, it even means delaying a professional career for a few months in hopes of competing in one of amateur golf's most storied events. That's the case for Hunter Stewart, a recent Vanderbilt graduate who hopes to continue his outstanding record at Berkeley Hall.
Stewart won the 2013 Players Amateur and tied for second last year before going on to post perhaps the best season in Commodore history. His stroke average of 69.49 in 2014-15 was the lowest in the program's history, and he was named the SEC Player of the Year and a first-team All-American.
Given the year he has had and his past experience at Berkeley Hall, it would be tough to argue against considering Stewart the favorite to become the first player ever to win the Players Amateur twice — even with a change of venue.
"I'm not thrilled about it with my record on the other course," Stewart said with a laugh. "Mr. (Steve) Wilmot and Duke Delcher and Tom McKnight run a first-class event. It's always a pleasure. The golf course is always in great shape and the members really get behind the event. … I'll look forward to having the chance to be the only guy who has won it twice."
Not every top amateur plans on turning pro this fall, though. That was never in the cards for former Hilton Head Island resident Todd White, a lifelong amateur who wants desperately to add a Players Amateur title to his distinguished resume. White, who played in the Walker Cup for the first time in 2013, has three top 10 finishes at the Players Amateur, including a tie for sixth last year.
A place on the Walker Cup team isn't the only perk of winning the Players Amateur. There's also the matter of earning an exemption into next year’s RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, as well as joining a prestigious list of past champions that includes names like Ben Curtis, Bill Haas, Camilo Villegas, Brian Harman and Rickie Fowler.
Among the other top players vying for a spot on that list will be Georgia's Lee McCoy and Stanford star Maverick McNealy, who was named the Jack Nicklaus National Player of the Year and won the Fred Haskins Award after a sophomore season in which he won six times.
The Players Amateur draws top golfers from around the globe — a strong Australian contingent will be present in this year's field, as usual — but local players have enjoyed success in the event, as well. Most notably, Beaufort's Mark Anderson won in 2008 before embarking on his professional career.
Several local players will take aim at following in Anderson's footsteps this year, including Bluffton's Bryson Nimmer, a Clemson signee who in February won the Junior Heritage to earn his first Players Amateur start. Despite being one of the younger players in the field, Nimmer hopes his knowledge of Berkeley Hall — his home club — will give him an advantage, especially on the North Course, an unfamiliar track for repeat visitors to the Players Amateur.
"The greens are going to be real quick, and they have a lot more slope and undulation than the South Course," Nimmer said. "If the rough's thick, it will be a huge advantage to know how to putt these greens."
Nimmer's victory at Sea Pines came in a playoff with Hilton Head Island's Andrew Orischak, a Virginia signee who is appearing in his second Players Amateur. A rising junior at Hilton Head Island High School, Orischak has long been one of the top-ranked junior players in the class of 2017 and turned in a solid showing with a tie for 24th last summer at Berkeley Hall. Bluffton resident Ben Dietrich, a South Carolina alumnus, and Hilton Head's Will Miles, a South Carolina signee, also have committed.
For younger players like Nimmer and Orischak, who are just making the transition from playing the junior circuit to competing in top amateur tournaments, playing in an event like the Walker Cup is likely at least one cycle away, but it's never too early to start building a case for 2017 and beyond.
"Looking to the future," Nimmer said, "I'm trying to play as well as I can so that hopefully down the road I can put myself in position for those kinds of things."
DID YOU KNOW?
- Players Amateur alumni have combined for 48 PGA Tour victories, including two major championships.
- No player has won the Players Amateur twice. Bill Haas and Hunter Stewart came the closest with a first place finish followed by a second. This year, Stewart attempts to become the first player to win the tournament twice in three years.
2000: Ben Curtis
2001: Michael Sims
2002: Bill Haas
2003: Camilo Villegas
2004: Aron Price
2005: Brian Harman
2006: Jonathan Moore
2007: Rickie Fowler
2008: Mark Anderson
2009: Bud Cauley
2010: Kevin Tway
2011: Corbin Mills
2012: Daniel Nisbet
2013: Hunter Stewart
2014: Scott Vincent