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Young and old, amateurs arrived from different paths

No. 1 seed Neil Raymond has been steadily climbing.

john mummert/usga

No. 1 seed Neil Raymond has been steadily climbing.

The frustration bowed him. The grind took his passion. Four years into a professional career, Jason Anthony walked off the course nine holes into qualifying for the US Open.

He was done.

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“I started to hate golf,” said Anthony, now 30. “It became a job. I didn’t enjoy it. I always loved the competition — I wasn’t ever a big practicer — but I started to hate the competition.”

Anthony didn’t touch his clubs for a year. He had had enough golf.

He got a job working at the car washes his father owns in northern California. He relaxed. He didn’t have to play for pay. But, gradually, he started thinking about golf again, and he was reinstated as an amateur the following year, 2012.

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That is how he came to be playing in the US Amateur championship at The Country Club in Brookline Wednesday, making a remarkable comeback from a triple bogey on the first hole of the morning playoff to make the match-play field of 64, before succumbing to the No. 1 seed in the afternoon.

That, in a way, is how all the golfers came to be at The Country Club and Charles River CC for this week’s tournament, the 7,003 applicants winnowed to 312 qualifiers, ranging in age from 14 to 59.

They are the ones in between — between high school golf and the professional ranks, between learning the game and squeezing in a tee time on weekends. Some have played professionally. Some will play professionally. Some will only be amateurs.

But they all, like Anthony, had particular reasons for being here on a day that made one golfer take a look at the sweeping blue August sky and say, in an intentional understatement, “Quite nice coming from England.”

“I don’t have to worry about where the money is coming from,” Anthony said of his new lease on golf. “I get to literally enjoy the experience. It’s like a vacation instead of another day at work. I cannot tell you how much I love it now. Best choice I made.”

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Rain was pouring down as Steven Zychowski ran out to his car last Friday. He had only an hour-and-a-half drive from his girlfriend’s house in Tolland, Conn., to Brookline, where he would register for his third US Amateur. But the car wouldn’t start.

One call to AAA and one jump later, the mechanic realized that the issue was the brake lights on his older Infiniti. They were on when they weren’t supposed to be. Zychowski turned to YouTube, jerry-rigged a MacGyver-like fix, and was on his way.

He arrived barely a half-hour before registration closed, after sweating through rush-hour Mass. Pike traffic, thinking he wouldn’t make it. His tournament finished with a 4 and 2 loss to Sebastian Cappelen of Denmark in the first round of match play.

That wasn’t even his strangest US Amateur experience.

One year ago, the airline lost his clubs as he was on his way to Cherry Hills CC in Colorado. He had three days to wait before he could cash the check from the airline to get a new set.

He waited. He waited more. He was scouting out the clubs at the pro shop, and in talks to borrow a set if he needed. They finally, finally showed up.

“It was like Christmas Day,” said Zychowski, 21, who graduated this year from Holy Cross and had his older brother, Brian, as caddie. “I was ecstatic.”

So, no, this isn’t exactly professional golf.

“But, I tell you,” he said. “I’d go through that gut-wrenching two days over and over again just to get the chance to play in the US Amateur.”

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These days, Nathan Smith rarely plays golf. He tries to practice every day, scheduling his putting and his hitting around clients and appointments. He’s 35, after all, with a wife and a golden retriever and a full-time job as an investment adviser in Pittsburgh.

He tried PGA Tour qualifying school a couple of times. He thought he had enough talent to bounce around between tours, tasting the top ranks every now and again. But it just never quite fit.

His MBA did. His life did. Amateur golf — what he calls an “obsessed hobby” — did.

“It’s pretty much for the love of the game,” said Smith, who has won the US Mid-Amateur four times, the first to do so, and has played in the Masters four times. “My days of spending all day at the course, I’m not sure if you even want to do that [now]. It’s about time management.”

These days, some of the parents at US Amateurs are around his age. Though Smith still feels like a young 35, there are certainly some unsettling moments. He played alongside a high schooler the other day, but in the end, did not make it to the match-play stage.

“When they talk college, you think back to when you were in school and you’re like, ‘Geez, that was 20 years ago,’ ” he said. “The first time I played in the US Amateur, I think it was 1999 at Pebble Beach. You blink your eyes and all of a sudden I’m 35 now.”

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At 15, Neil Raymond had barely started to play golf. At 18, the Englishman was a 5 handicap, and there didn’t appear to be a future for him in the game. He didn’t really take it seriously. He didn’t really think he was talented enough.

And yet, he kept getting better. From 18 to 22, he worked for his golf coach at a pro shop, playing and practicing when he got the time. He moved up in the estimation of those who matter in English golf. He improved. He moved up more.

“I like the fact I climbed the ladder each rung at a time,” said Raymond, now 27 and the No. 1 seed in this year’s US Amateur. “I didn’t jump anything.

“I think a few people play a little bit of junior golf, then jump up to men’s golf, then turn pro, and all of a sudden they’ve missed out on quite a bit. And I don’t feel like I have.”

He got to be an 18-year-old when he was 18. He got that out of his system. Now, at 27, he’s finally ready to turn pro, which he will do this fall. After falling 5 and 3 to Corey Conners of Canada in the quarterfinals of the US Amateur, Raymond is looking to earn a trip to the Walker Cup, which he called the “last box that needs to be ticked.”

“It’s just been something I wanted to do properly,” he said, even if others felt he was taking a little bit too much time. “You’re learning a trade.”

The opportunity to play full time came courtesy of his parents when he was 22, and he has taken advantage of that for the last four years, crafting his game, accomplishing just about everything he could, making sure he could win as an amateur before he tried it as a pro. He wanted to feel comfortable.

Now, he does.

And with the potential in front of him to turn the prestige wins of the amateur circuit into the financial windfall of the professional one, his delay seems minor. As he put it, “Obviously, I have no regrets.”

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.
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