Across the past two decades, the Jones Cup has continued to ascend as one of the premier events on the amateur golf calendar. Of its 16 champions – Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed, Kyle Stanley and Corey Conners among them – nine have reached the PGA Tour and others such as Braden Thornberry and Akshay Bhatia are not far from reaching full status in the big leagues.
Successfully maneuvering through one of the deepest fields of the year at Ocean Forest Golf Club bodes well for a player’s future. The course is a tree-lined brute with undulating greens that become as firm as a cart path on cold and windy days in early February at Sea Island, Georgia.
But this year’s Jones Cup, which begins Thursday, has raised the stakes. The Walker Cup will be held in the spring for the first time on U.S. soil, four months earlier than past editions. If you add in the reality that many top players from both the United States and Great Britain & Ireland did not play full schedules in 2020, every tournament will be crucial to deciding who makes the teams. Particularly one with the Jones Cup’s pedigree.
Players from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean know it. Among the top 46 Americans in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, 22 are in the field this week. Of the top 17 ranked GB&I players, nine are competing. It won’t just be the champion who makes a statement. Putting together three solid rounds and finishing among the top five or 10 could be the résumé booster needed to be included on one of the 10-man Walker Cup rosters come May, when the two teams battle at venerable Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Florida. It’s also worth noting that Ocean Forest and Seminole are both seaside layouts susceptible to unrelenting winds.
The majority of the U.S. Walker Cup squad is virtually set at the moment. Tyler Strafaci, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, already has secured an automatic berth. Stewart Hagestad will undoubtedly be the mid-am representative on the team, filling one spot that used to be two – in 2017 the USGA lowered its mid-am requirement to only one player having to make the team. Three days after the Jones Cup concludes, the top three Americans in the WAGR will receive exemptions onto the team as well.
If you add in the reality that many top players from both the United States and Great Britain & Ireland did not play full schedules in 2020, every tournament will be crucial to deciding who makes the teams. Particularly one with the Jones Cup’s pedigree.
Davis Thompson (last year’s Jones Cup winner), Ricky Castillo and John Pak would earn those invitations at this point, and the fourth-best American in the rankings, Pierceson Coody, is also a no-brainer selection after he won last year’s Western Amateur and enjoyed a consistent year of golf.
That likely leaves four spots. Austin Eckroat, who recently finished 12th in the PGA Tour’s Mayakoba Golf Classic and came one stroke from forcing a playoff in the Maridoe Invitational, is the fifth-ranked American and would be hard to leave off the team. The same goes for Quade Cummins, the 24-year-old from the University of Oklahoma who had eight top-10s a year ago, several in the biggest events on the amateur calendar.
For the others, strong performances in the early stages of 2021 will be essential. Four Jones Cup contestants – Cole Hammer (pictured above), McClure Meissner, Garrett Reband and Trey Winstead – could position themselves for one of those last remaining spots with a solid showing at Ocean Forest.
Hammer played in the 2019 Walker Cup, recently won the South Beach International Amateur and is a former USGA champion, having partnered with Garrett Barber for the 2018 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball title. However, he remains on the bubble after registering only one top-10 all of last year. Meissner captured the Southern Amateur last summer to get into the mix, but likely is on the outside looking in at the moment. Reband, a teammate of Cummins at Oklahoma, is the sixth-ranked American in the WAGR but played sparingly in 2020 and needs to prove he is in good form. Winstead was not invited to the U.S. team’s practice session at Bay Hill, but the LSU southpaw made strong runs at the North & South, Western Amateur and U.S. Amateur last summer. He’s within striking distance.
Only seven of the 16 players from the 2019 Walker Cup practice session made the 10-man U.S. team, so a lot still can happen, even if the timetable has been shortened. A Jones Cup victory by an American further down the board – like Preston Summerhays, Luke Potter or Parker Coody – could get them around the bubble.
The GB&I contingent will be more focused on finding good form heading into the spring rather than making the team itself. James Sugrue, the 2019 Amateur champion ranked No. 5 in the world, has announced his intention to turn pro and will not play the Walker Cup. That only further bolsters the chances of Wake Forest teammates Alex Fitzpatrick and Mark Power and University of Minnesota teammates Angus Flanagan and Ben Schmidt. All four are in the field this week. Matty Lamb, Tom McKibbin, John Murphy and Callum Farr also are playing as they look to improve their ranking. The latter four were invited to the GB&I practice session but are outside of the 10 highest-ranked GB&I players.
On average, those on the American side played more golf than those on the GB&I squad in 2020. That’s partly why GB&I captain Stuart Wilson lobbied the R&A to move the men’s Home Internationals at Dornoch, traditionally held in August or September, to the week of the Masters, just a few weeks ahead of the Walker Cup.
Every extra opportunity to gauge how players on both sides are faring will be a key piece to putting the teams together.
That will be on everyone’s mind this week in Georgia.