While Rory McILroy may be ever so quickly ascending to the pinnacle of professional golf, there are three gentlemen in the field who perhaps embody the spirit of the game in an even purer light. Regardless of finish Brad Benjamin, Russell Henley, and Patrick Cantlay will all leave Congressional Country Club with the same sum of money: Zero dollars, and zero cents. In its own right, golf is the only modern sport that can claim its best ever, one Robert Tyre Jones Jr. (sorry Tiger), never claimed a paycheck. And that legacy lives on to today.
Coming into Thursday's first round, 12 amateurs qualified for the 156-man field. Just three made the cut, meaning they were in or were tied for the top-60 after the second round. As last year's low-amateur, recent UGA-grad Russell Henley came into this week with lofty expectations.
"I don't have anything to lose," said Henley about playing the Open as an amateur. "I'm not playing for money. I'm playing for fun. That's what's great about playing as an amateur. Hopefully, I'll play like that when I'm a pro."
That sentiment is almost unique to golf, but it shouldn't be. It is a sport which is often branded as exclusive, yet remains unplagued by the internal scandal and turmoil of "mainstream", "real man" sports. There will never be a golf lockout. You know why? Thousands of amateurs would step up to qualify for any tournament with no money on the line.
I'm also a realist. I know golf can include amateurs because it is composed of a tour as opposed to a central league. Players can choose to particpate in some events and stay home for others. In that way too, I guess it's an exception. But there is the reality that players, even when they make it to the big time, still remember when they were just some young kid soaking it all in. They take that humility and it gives them perspective if they begin striking balls for a living. Phil Mickelson, now the fifth-ranked player in the world, competed as an amateur in the U.S. twice, back in 1990 and 1991. 20-years-old back then, he won low-am both years.
Perhaps hoping to catch a glance of the next great American player, I followed Patrick Cantlay, a 19-old sophomore at UCLA, as he played his third round with PGA vet John Senden. Cantlay came into Saturday tied with Hanley for the lowest amateur score.
Cantlay, dressed in flourescent white and looking every bit the part of a little man on a big stage, shook off any nerves he may have had when he rocketed his drive down the straight-as-an-arrow first fairway. On his approach, from just under 100 yards out he chased a lofted wedge low, and spun it back within 4 feet. He sank the birdie putt with no hesitation. A chip in on fifteen put Patrick at one-under and places him in the low-am spot heading into today's final round.
Intent upon graduating at UCLA before earning his tour card, Cantlay knows his play in a major as an amateur will prove a valuable experience.
"I'll just be really confident and know that I can compete out here," remarked Cantlay after his Saturday round of 70. "I'll know what it's like to have played in the U.S. Open with the golf course and the fans and walking around with all the people. I'll just be more confident and know what it's like."
If he keeps playing the way we've seen this week at Congressional, expect that confidence to only increase.