At the start there were 13, at the halfway point seven remained and by Sunday two were in the top five. It’s beginning to look like ’amateur’ might be the wrong term for elite non-professional golfers.
Japan’s Takumi Kanaya was beaten by only two professionals at the Emirates Australian Open and Chinese Taipei’s Chun-An Yu was beaten by only four.
Add in the performances of Lukas Michel (T21), Hayden Hopewell (T27), Elvis Smylie (T33), Louis Dobbelar (T66) and Jack Trent (71st) and it’s clear the gap between amateur and professional has never been closer.
“It would have been unthinkable for a 17-year-old to make the cut in an Australian Open in my era,” says Golf Australia columnist Mike Clayton, who caddied for Australian unior champion Elvis Smylie this week at The Australian.
“Techniques are so much better now, which means young players are much better physically than players of the past ever were.
“They can look at their swings all the time which we never could. So they can get rid of all the really bad habits early.”
Kanaya, who led the tournament after an opening round 65, won one of his home country’s most prestigious professional events just two weeks ago.
The Visa Taiheyo Masters boasts a field of Japan’s best players, Kanaya winning by a shot over South Africa’s Shaun Norris at 13-under.
His coach, Australian Gareth Jones, says the 21-year-old is a rare talent but not the only amateur good enough to win at professional level.
“He watched his mate almost do it last year,” says Jones of fellow Japan national team member Keita Nakajima who played in the final group of the Australian Open on Sunday last year.
“Takumi’s ready. He can play at any level already and he’s got room to improve as well.”
There have always been stand-out amateurs but in recent years the advance of technology in coaching has seen players improving more quickly.
That means they are not only playing their way into top tournaments at an earlier age but are also having more success at those same events.
“Elvis (Smylie) is a really good player already and he’s only 17,” says Clayton. “He hits the ball properly which is a big head start but he also thinks well and has a good attitude.
“One of the players in our group this week hit a bad shot and muttered ‘I give up’ and Elvis looked at me and said ‘they’re the three worst words in golf’. So he gets it already.”
Kanaya earned one of three Open spots with his T3 finish, winner Matt Jones and Northern Territory’s Aaron Pike getting the other two.