Date: August 17, 2015
Author: Tom Fee, Golf WA

Eight Aussies ready for gruelling US Amateur

Golf’s fourth and final major may be in the books, but the year’s biggest test in golf is about to begin.

From Whistling Straits, the Olympia Fields Country Club is a 300km drive south along the massive Lake Michigan, and it’s a trip many of golf’s dignitaries will be making right now in order to catch the Monday start of the 7-day US Amateur Championship.

Eight Australians will feature in this year’s field, all looking to become the country’s second champion in the 115th running of the event.

And the gargantuan field of 312, two more than double the size of the PGA Championship, will contest for a trophy that is equally as extravagant. The prize may not compare to the many millions pocketed this morning by Jason Day, but the chance to play at next year’s US Open, British Open and US Masters makes the US Amateur crown the most coveted in Amateur golf.

The scope of these elite amateur events is unrivalled in the professional game. The eventual finalists will have played nine rounds of golf with two rounds of strokeplay leading into five matchplay rounds to qualify for the 36 hole final.

Even qualification for the event is tough with only the world’s top 50 ranked golfers, plus a handful of recent tournament winners, guaranteed an exemption.

Three of the Australian contingent earned their way into the field through these exemptions, with top-50 ranked Victorians Ryan Ruffels (10) and Lucas Herbert (41) automatically in the field alongside reigning Asia-Pacific Amateur Champion Antonio Murdaca of South Australia.

The remaining five, Curtis Luck (WA), Cameron Davis (NSW), Brett Coletta (VIC), Troy Moses (NSW) and Austin Bautista (NSW), all earned their spots through one of the USGA’s 36 hole pre-qualification events. A remarkable feat considering only the top 2 or 3 golfers from each field of up to 100 earn a start.

As the winner of the Asia-Pacific Amateur, Antonio Murdaca is just one of a few golfers in the field to have had the honour to play the Masters, but the competition for the title and these major spots will be tighter than ever.

2014 US Amateur Champion Gunn Yang is back to defend his title and book a return to Augusta in 2016, while British Open high flyers Jordan Niebrugge and Paul Dunn will also be vying for another taste of Major golf.

Niebrugge was an impressive T6 at The Open this year to win the low-amateur honours, a title hotly contested with Ireland’s Dunne shocking everyone to become the first amateur since 1927 to lead The Open after 54 holes.

Australia’s best chance is likely to come from Victoria Golf Club member Ryan Ruffels, who made headlines around the world after firing a 66 on his debut round of the PGA Tour at the Canadian Open.

That round was just one glimpse of the potential of the 17-year-old, who won the 2014 Callaway World Junior Championship and has twice won the Australian Junior Championship while a T3 finish at this year’s Victorian Open showed Ruffels can also bring his A-game to senior events.

Golf Australia High Performance director Brad James, currently at Olympia Fields with the Australian contingent, said these experiences are invaluable to the development of their young prodigy.

“I think any time you have the opportunity to compete against the world's best athletes on world class golf courses it only provides opportunities to learn no matter what level you are competing at. 

The feeling of "I belong" at the highest level is important to have and the more success you have at highest level only increases that belief with each and every successful shot.”

In recent years the USGA has been renowned for selecting and preparing a testing layout for their events, and James was glowing in his review of Olympia Fields.

“I have had the opportunity to walk around the course over 20 times and each time it's just gets better, the history of the course and the difficulty will surely set up a world class event.“

James said the only course that might compare at home was the Australian Golf Club, the current home of the Australian Open. This may give a small advantage to the trio of Australian amateurs who made the cut at last year’s open, with Lucas Herbert earning the low amateur honours over Ruffels and Murdaca.

But the real test of the US Amateur is in its size, and to win requires more stamina than from your average 72 hole event. Cameron Davis as the 2015 Australian Amateur Champion, and Curtis Luck , the 2014 Australian Amateur finalist, can at least know what it takes to last the full week in these epic amateur events.

“It’s a gruelling test” said James.

“It’s not only a physical test but the emotional roller-coaster ride that takes place during the week can make for a long test of golf. On top of this the USGA always do an incredible job in picking and setting up the golf course, so we can only expect it to produce a world class winner.”

And if an Australian can pull of a victory or a finalist finish it will be the third straight year the country has been represented by an Amateur at the US Masters, a streak James would like to continue.

“We’ve had a nice little run at the Masters the last couple of years and with the US Amateur this week and the Asia Pac amateur coming up later this year it would be fantastic to get another one, or even two in.“

It’s a place 2013 US Amateur finalist Oliver Goss described as “golf heaven”, yet the obvious cliché is that they’re going to have to go through hell to get there.