Saturday, August 27, 2005

Group of seven excels at the US Am

Today's National Post golf column:

Robert Thompson
On Golf
It was arguably the biggest thing to happen in Canadian golf since Mike Weir won the Masters and the Canadian media hardly noticed it. It wasn’t even worth a brief to most papers.
Canadian golf may have come of age on this week when seven players from this country teed it up among the final 48 in the U.S. Amateur at the wonderful Merion Golf Club, a historic club located just outside of Philadelphia. It is the largest number of Canucks to make the matchplay segment of the most prestigious amateur tournament in the world.
Topping it all off, three made it through to the quarter final, with one making it to the weekend semi-final match today.
Some of the names, like NCAA champion James Lepp, might be recognizable to the hardcore golf nut. But most of the Canadians in the field aren’t well known -- yet.
“They all could end up on the PGA Tour,” says Doug Roxburgh, the head of the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s player development program. “It is hard to say for certain, since the development period for a professional golfer can be six or eight years. But they all have a shot.”
For the record, the group of seven who made it through to the match play portion of the event were Lepp, Alberta’s Ryan Yip, Quebec’s Kevin Fortin-Simard, Ontario’s Andrew Parr, J.C. Deacon and Mark Leon, New Brunswick’s Ron Harvey Jr.
The only unfortunate part of having so many Canadians make it through to match play was that Canadians were paired against one another in two of the matches. Regardless, four Canadians made it through the first match play round at Merion, whose devilish rough forced golfers in the field to carefully consider every shot.
There’s s camaraderie between the Canadians in the field that has certainly helped them push forward, Roxburgh said.
“They all know each other from tournaments in Canada and college golf in the U.S.,” he said. “They push each other and help each other out. It is a great group of guys.”
For Lepp, 21, the U.S. Am caps off a remarkable year in which he won the NCAA championship. Strangely, he didn’t make it into the top 64 at the Canadian Amateur held earlier this month at Bell Bay Golf Club in Nova Scotia, but came roaring back to claim medallist honors this week by shooting 65 at Philadelphia Country Club in the final round of the stroke play portion of the tournament.
Lepp has looked a lot stronger this year than he did at the Canadian Open at Hamilton in 2003. At that time Lepp was coming off a six stroke win at the Canadian Tour’s Greater Vancouver Open. But his swing had a lot of moving parts, leading to some inconsistency. Roxburgh said Lepp, who sat out the 2003-04 U.S. college golf season after transferring to the University of Washington from the University of Illinois, has refined his swing to go along with a strong short game.
Despite being hotly tipped, Lepp narrowly avoided being eliminated in the first round of match play, taking 19 holes to dispatch #64 seed Kyle Reifers. Yesterday, he fell in his morning match, losing 2-and-1, but Yip, Leon and Deacon all made it through to quarter final matches, with Deacon besting Leon to head to the semi-final.
Though the U.S. Amateur field looks very strong from a Canadian standpoint, one notable name is missing from the list of Canadians competing this week. Richard Scott, who won the Canadian Amateur with Lepp caddying for him, didn’t make it through qualifying.
Roxburgh says the most fascinating factor for the Canadians is they are all of comparable skills. Though Lepp has gained much of the attention, there is no single golfer who is more likely than the others to follow Mike Weir, David Hearn and Jon Mills onto the PGA Tour.
“They are all very close in ability,” he said. “And this hasn’t happened over night. It has been building and now we are seeing the results.”
Call it what you will -- maybe the Canadian golf renaissance is a good term for what’s happening this week in Philly. Regardless of whether one of the Canadians manages to repeat Gary Cowan’s feat of winning the U.S. Amateur this year or maybe next, the future of Canadian professional golf appears to be in good hands.
National Post
rthompson@nationalpost.com

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