'Minors' pass a major test

Young players, including amateurs, show at British Open that they are up for the fight

Jordan Spieth, 22, could have replaced Rory McIlroy as the world's No. 1 if he had won the British Open. But pundits say it is only a matter of time.
Jordan Spieth, 22, could have replaced Rory McIlroy as the world's No. 1 if he had won the British Open. But pundits say it is only a matter of time.PHOTO: REUTERS
Jordan Niebrugge, 21, bagged the Silver Medal for the top amateur at the British Open.
Jordan Niebrugge, 21, bagged the Silver Medal for the top amateur at the British Open.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ST ANDREWS (Scotland) • A bespectacled, white-haired journalist from The Surrey Advertiser, on hand to chronicle his 37th consecutive British Open, cocked his head and asked Jordan Spieth a question.

It cut through the crosswinds during the tournament as deftly as did one of Spieth's crisp iron shots on the Old Course: When did golf become so youthful?

Down the stretch of Monday's finale, the usual cast of leading men were nowhere to be seen.

Tiger Woods, a 14-time Major winner, failed to make the cut.

Phil Mickelson, who has not won since the 2013 British Open, teed off early and put together a quiet, three-under 69 to finish tied for 20th, eight strokes back.

Rory McIlroy, the world No. 1 and the event's defending champion, never made it to the first tee.

Sidelined with a badly sprained ankle, he was out of sight, out of mind. In five news conferences with the print media over six days, second-ranked Spieth was asked 64 questions. The only time that McIlroy's name came up was when Spieth casually mentioned him in a list of players whose power off the tee he could never hope to match.

Last summer, McIlroy was golf's transcendent figure, with wins in the British Open and PGA Championship leaving him one Masters title from a career Grand Slam.

Having taken the mantle from Woods, though, McIlroy, now 26, found Spieth, an avid basketball fan, battling him for it as if it were a jump ball.

Spieth could have supplanted McIlroy at No. 1 with a victory on Monday. His tie for fourth only delayed what appears inevitable.

Once hailed as golf's young gun, McIlroy must feel, suddenly, as if 26 is the new 36.

Spieth, who turns 22 next week, is blazing a trail for the millennials.

On Monday, he battled rain, wind, a few golf ghosts, his putter and the Road Hole.

He came within a holed chip or a made six-footer of joining Zach Johnson, Marc Leishman and Louis Oosthuizen in a play-off.

Spieth's play in the first three Majors disinterred sepia-toned memories of Bobby Jones, who opened his successful Grand Slam bid in 1930 with a victory in the British Amateur at the Old Course.

Jones was 28 in 1930, which would have rendered him an old-timer on Monday's bottlenecked leaderboard.

One of three players sharing the 54-hole lead was a 22-year-old, Paul Dunne, who was trying to become the first amateur to win this tournament since Jones.

Dunne, an Irishman, is 243 days older than Spieth, for whom he is often mistaken, he said.

Playing in the final twosome, Dunne struggled and posted a 78. He finished tied for 30th in a group that included Rickie Fowler and Jim Furyk.

Dunne's collapse kept him from winning the silver medal, awarded to the low amateur. That distinction instead belonged to Jordan Niebrugge, a Wisconsin resident who is eight days younger than Spieth.

He started the day tied for ninth and spent all afternoon on the first page of the leaderboard.

Niebrugge, who has one year left at Oklahoma State University, recorded a 70 to hold a share of sixth place at 11-under.

"Just to see all the amateurs competing on a high level just says a lot about the amateurs coming up and how good they are," a spot-on Niebrugge said.

Oliver Schniederjans, who turned 22 last month, finished with a 67 and an overall score of nine-under in his final amateur start.

Schniederjans, who played at Georgia Tech, will make his pro debut this week at the Canadian Open. He posted the same cumulative score as another amateur, Ashley Chesters, a 25-year-old from England who plans to turn pro by the end of the year.

This new generation, drawn to the game by the spell cast by Woods, has benefited from junior and collegiate circuits that give players access to quality courses and keen competition.

By the time they are in their late teens, they are as tough as calluses.

"There's just no fear," said Spieth, who believes that an amateur will triumph in a Major "in the next decade or so".

Niebrugge agreed.

"I grew up playing with a lot of the guys that are playing well right now on the PGA Tour and out here, and it just gives me the most confidence, seeing that we can actually compete with those guys and we're not far behind," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2015, with the headline ''Minors' pass a major test'. Print Edition | Subscribe