123rd U.S. Amateur: 3 Things to Know, Stroke Play

By Ron Driscoll, USGA

| Aug 12, 2023 | Cherry Hills Village, Colo.

123rd U.S. Amateur: 3 Things to Know, Stroke Play

You want history? The welcome party for the 123rd U.S. Amateur Championship will feature players getting the opportunity to replicate one of the most famous shots in the game’s annals: Arnold Palmer driving the green on the par-4 first hole at Cherry Hills Country Club to ignite his record-setting charge to victory in the final round of the 1960 U.S. Open, in which he held off a young Jack Nicklaus and a grizzled Ben Hogan.

This week marks the 10th USGA championship for Cherry Hills, a number that includes three U.S. Opens and three U.S. Amateurs and is exceeded by just 10 venues. Founded in 1922, the club hosted the first U.S. Open west of the Mississippi in 1938, and Palmer is joined on its roster of USGA champions by Jack Nicklaus, Andy North, Phil Mickelson, Jay Sigel and Ralph Guldahl.

There is history, too, at stroke-play co-host Colorado Golf Club, a Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw design that, despite having debuted only 16 years ago, has already hosted a USGA championship (the 2019 U.S. Mid-Amateur won by Lukas Michel), a Solheim Cup and a Senior PGA Championship.

By the evening of Aug. 20, the roll of champions at Cherry Hills will include another deserving name. Here are 3 Things to Know for the stroke-play rounds on Monday and Tuesday:

Classic Restored

Cherry Hills is a William Flynn design that turned 100 this year and has benefited from a multi-year restoration effort by Tom Doak’s firm, Renaissance Golf, led by Doak associate Eric Iverson and completed in 2022. Flynn also designed five-time U.S. Open host Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., and worked extensively on The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., a four-time U.S. Open host. Another Flynn layout, Lancaster (Pa.) Country Club, will host its second U.S. Women’s Open in 2024.

Some of the restoration at Cherry Hills involved work on Little Dry Creek, which runs through several holes and is now a prominent, meandering feature in several places, most notably on the par-4 14th (“If you drive it out of position, the creek will become very impactful,” Iverson said). Greens were restored as well, with the average green size now 3,500 square feet, much smaller than the national average of 5,000 to 6,000 square feet.

Iverson applauded when he heard that wind may be a factor during stroke play, with forecasted breezes in the mid-teens, especially in the afternoon.

“Architects always pray for wind,” said Iverson with a chuckle. “As a Denver native, I will tell you we have outstanding weather much of the year, but a nice 10-to-15-mph wind, that’s a good golf wind.”

Iverson is also interested to see how players adapt their typical yardages to the mile-high elevation. The rule of thumb is that balls generally travel 10 percent farther in the thinner air.

“How far the ball goes, that tends to vary day-to-day,” said Iverson. “Some days it feels like the balls are going really far, and other days it’s closer to normal. The tricky part is that second shots do that, too. In general, I think there ends up being a wider gap between irons than usual that makes it a bit harder to get the numbers dialed in.”

Iverson expects to see a few shocked faces among players and caddies when an approach shot flies the green, which will invariably lead to a delicate recovery shot, as most of Flynn’s designs punish players who go long by leaving them with a steep back-to-front green slope.

Star Power

If you walked the fairways of Cherry Hills during the 2012 U.S. Amateur, you would have seen five future major champions as well as several other budding future professional stars. The field included Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Hideki Matsuyama, Cameron Smith, Xander Schauffele and Max Homa, among a group that has combined for eight major titles and more than 70 PGA Tour wins.

Although 2012 is notable for the depth of its field, more recent U.S. Amateur champions include 2020 U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau (2015), 2022 U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick (2013), and four-time PGA Tour winner Viktor Hovland (2018). In 2012, Thomas advanced to the semifinals (he beat Homa in the Round of 32), while Matsuyama, Smith and Schauffele failed to qualify for match play. Spieth lost to current professional Thomas Pieters in the Round of 64.

This week’s starting field counts 18 of the top 20 players in the World Amateur Golf Ranking® (WAGR®), a group that will no doubt use their experiences on this grand stage as a springboard to future success.  Among those to watch are No. 1 Gordon Sargent, the 2022 NCAA champion and the low amateur in the 2023 U.S. Open at The Los Angeles Country Club; No. 5 Dylan Menante, a 2022 semifinalist in this championship who helped Pepperdine to the 2021 NCAA title; and No. 9 Nick Dunlap, the 2021 U.S. Junior Amateur champion, who is coming off victories in the North & South Amateur and Northeast Amateur this summer. One notable absence is world No. 2 and 2018 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Michael Thorbjornsen, who withdrew on Aug. 9 due to a stress fracture in his back.

1 in 5 Will Survive

This starting field is always the largest of the year for a USGA championship: 312 players. The U.S. Mid-Amateur and the Junior Amateur start with 264 players. No matter their ranking or how they got here, every player starts with the same goal: make it into the match-play bracket of 64. Only 20 percent will get there, but once they do, it becomes a one-on-one test to the end.

In 2012 at Cherry Hills, Steven Fox and Michael Weaver survived a 17-for-14 playoff to earn the No. 63 and No. 60 seeds, respectively, and Fox prevailed in the final in 37 holes, one of only three final matches to go extra holes since 2001. He’s one of three No. 63 seeds to ever win a USGA title.

Even more staggering than the 20 percent figure are the odds to get into this elite field. The USGA accepted 8,253 entries this year, which eclipsed the previous mark from 1999 by 333 entries. About 22 percent of the 312 players here earned their places through past performances and WAGR exemptions, but the bottom line is that fewer than 4 percent who entered got here. They are surely looking for much more, but congratulations to the players on simply getting here.

Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.