When the US Golf Association made the decision three years ago to add an automatic exemption based on the world amateur golf rankings, the knee-jerk reaction was that more international players would come over and play.
That’s been the case. At the 113th US Amateur, being held this week at The Country Club and Charles River Country Club, there are players from 18 countries outside the US. Of the 312 players in this year’s field, 49 have a non-American flag next to their name.
It might be the US Amateur, but it’s developed quite an international reach. Want more proof? Four of the past eight US Amateur champions were international players, and the top five on the leaderboard in the stroke-play portion this week are from elsewhere: Two from Australia, two from England, one from Canada.
Anyone in the top 50 of the world amateur rankings on June 26 was automatically exempt into the championship and didn’t have to go through 36-hole sectional qualifying. The current rankings have 27 non-US players among the top 50; of those 27, all but seven are here.
Without the exemption, a number of those 20 would have chosen not to play.
“No, certainly not,” said Matt Fitzpatrick, an 18-year-old from England who shot 70 at The Country Club on Tuesday and tied for third with a two-round stroke-play score of 137. “If I was to say to someone [in England] I’m playing in the US Amateur, they’d be very impressed, but I wouldn’t say they’d think it’s the pinnacle of amateur golf. But I believe that this is the biggest one, because the top 50 in the world are exempt, and there’s better fields in America.”
Fitzpatrick will be either the No. 3, 4, or 5 seed when match play starts Wednesday morning, but he won’t know his opponent until a playoff determines the final 15 who will advance. A playoff will begin at 7 a.m., with the 17 players who finished at 4-over 144 competing for the last 15 spots in match play. Don’t discount the last players into the bracket; Steven Fox, who missed the cut this year, survived a similar playoff last year, then won the title as the No. 63 seed.
Fitzpatrick was low amateur at last month’s British Open, is the No. 2-ranked amateur in the world, and will be a freshman at Northwestern in the fall. He was joined in the top five after stroke play by three other international players who took advantage of the top-50 exemption: Neil Raymond (67-67) of England, and Brady Watt (68-66) and Oliver Goss (70-67), both of Australia. Watt is ranked No. 9, Goss 12th, and Raymond 27th.
“It’s quite a big amount of money for 10 days, but it’s something that I’ve always wanted to play in, and getting the opportunity by the world ranking system, I just had to take it,” said Raymond, the stroke-play co-medalist along with Watt who played Tuesday at Charles River. Raymond estimated this trip is costing him 3,000 British pounds, but like Fitzpatrick, has his eyes set on making this year’s Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup team, and this tournament could go a long way toward that. “My dad said, ‘We’re good, we’re good to go, so you just get on a plane and play golf.’ I’m trying to do it the cheapest way possible, but it’s still quite an expensive trip.”
The thought behind creating the exemption is preventing players from making that expensive trip twice: Once for qualifying, then again for the championship.
“We were losing a lot of quality international players from the event,” said Ben Kimball, the US Amateur’s director. “This championship is about identifying the best amateur golfer in the world, not necessarily the best amateur player in the United States.”
Matthias Schwab, an 18-year-old from Austria, is ranked No. 33 in the world amateur rankings, and wouldn’t have played if he hadn’t been exempt, because it coincides with the European Amateur in Spain. But he’s headed to Vanderbilt for college, so he and his father, Andrew, left Austria Aug. 6 and stopped in Nashville before coming here.
“I knew that it was the biggest amateur event, maybe along with the British Amateur together,” said Schwab, who lost in last year’s British Amateur final at Royal Troon.
Asked if anything concerned him about going to school so far from home, Schwab said, “Not yet. I guess it’ll be tough, learning and talking in English.”
Just then his father handed him a cellphone. Schwab’s mother was calling from home to offer her congratulations on qualifying for match play — Schwab got through with rounds of 71-70 — so the 18-year-old apologized to a reporter, then took the call, speaking in German.
It was just one of a number of languages heard spoken this week at the US Amateur. It might be a national championship, but its plan to include the best international players seems to be working.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.