GRANITEVILLE — Tim Finchem’s presence at the trophy presentation added immediate legitimacy to the inaugural Junior Invitational. A year later, the PGA Tour commissioner’s actions have added urgency.
When Finchem announced in March the tour’s decision to kill Q-School as a direct avenue onto the PGA Tour despite being nowhere near consensus on how to implement the new plan, the fallout trickled all the way to the junior ranks.
While the tour still tries to figure out how to blend the best of the Nationwide Tour with the rejects from the PGA ranks into a cohesive qualifying series that will create the fewest casualties possible, the immediate victims of the tour’s short-sighted system are already stacking up.
Jim Holtgrieve is one of those victims. The captain for the American Walker Cup team already understands he might be underhanded when his team tries to reclaim the trophy from Great Britain & Ireland in 2013 at the same National Golf Links venue where the biennial event began in 1922.
That reality brought Holtgrieve to the Junior Invitational.
“I’m going to be a little more cognizant about junior play because I think that’s probably where it’s going to go,” Holtgrieve said of the Walker Cup selection process. That’s a safe bet considering 2011 Sage Valley runner-up Patrick Rodgers made Holtgrieve’s 10-man roster last fall.
“Last year having Patrick Rodgers on the team was eye-opening,” said George Cunningham, 15, of Tucson, Ariz., who played in his second Junior Invitational.
Because of the pending changes to Q-School, Holtgrieve has received every indication that top American collegians Patrick Cantlay and Jordan Spieth will pass up hanging around as amateurs another year in order to participate in the final Q-School that hands out PGA Tour cards. Cantlay and Spieth were Holtgrieve’s top point-getters with 2.5 each in last year’s Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen, and they would have been the expected leaders for next year’s campaign to win back the cup.
“Nobody is a lock, but there’s no doubt about it that both of them are great players and great ambassadors for the United States,” Holtgrieve said. “So selfishly I’m hoping they stay amateur and try to make the team again.”
Realistically, he knows that won’t happen. Because Holtgrieve understands that amateur and collegiate golf are all the unintended victims of the death of Q-School.
“Absolutely,” he said when the trickle-down consequence of Q-School’s demise was broached.
The most gifted amateur golfers who in the past might have been willing to hold off their professional careers for a year to represent their country are less likely to wait when the best option for Q-School graduates is spending at least another season apprenticing in the Nationwide ranks. It’s become a two-year investment that is likely to be crippling to the caliber of talent at events like the Walker Cup and U.S. Amateur.
That’s why Holtgrieve was at Sage Valley this weekend scouting juniors instead of at collegiate conference championships. The paradigm has shifted his pool of candidates to even younger players like the teenagers competing in the Junior Invitational.
Holtgrieve spoke to the players at Saturday night’s dinner, explaining the process and preaching the gospel of amateur golf and the Walker Cup to the 37 Americans in the elite 54-player field.
Holtgrieve presented each of the juniors at Sage Valley with a signed copy of David Cook’s book Seven Days in Utopia, an inspirational story about a rancher teaching a higher truth in the game to a struggling young tour pro. He read them a passage he hopes will leave an impression of the kids.
You’re well on your way to living your life controlled by a score. Let me let you in on a little secret. Life in the end will be measured by significance, not a golf score. Significance will be defined by your character, relationships, values and faith and not by a golf score.
“What I want to tell these guys is that whatever you do – if you become a Walker Cupper or professional golfer or another profession – do it where you’re giving back and helping and never forget where you came from,” Holtgrieve said. “It’s a great game and if you have the chance to represent your country when there are all these people who are dying for it, my message is that if you’re that good you can wait another year to start playing for money. Play for your country first.”
It’s a noble message, but one that’s unlikely to resonate with top collegians who understand the path to the riches of the PGA Tour is now longer and more crowded.
That’s why Holtgrieve is checking out the next generation of golf stars who are more likely to be pressed into Walker Cup service sooner rather than later.
“When we had Walker Cup practice sessions two years ago I was completely overwhelmed not only by their talent of golf but also by their maturity and respect,” he said. “So (I) came here to see how deep it goes. Well I’m overwhelmed here again by all these young guys – 14-, 15-, 16-, 17- and 18-year-old kids who not only can play and have talent and can hit it but they’re very respectful. That to me is what it’s all about.”
Holtgrieve, 64, was a career amateur who played on three winning Walker Cup teams from 1979-83 when he was already in his 30s. Post-collegiate mid-amateurs like that are rarer figures on the Walker Cup stage, just as older collegians soon might be.
So Holtgrieve – who has sons ages 32 and 26 and hasn’t had to deal with teenagers in a while – plans to be back next year at the Junior Invitational fostering relationships with the kids who might make his team.
“I’ll be back here next year for sure because these guys certainly have the talent to play,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting to see their maturity level when they get the exposure of playing for their country.”