A year ago, this is how we opened the Contenders piece for the 116th North & South Amateur, with our footnotes added this year:
Sean Walsh is the defending North & South Amateur champion. Andrew Buchanan is coming off a USGA championship. Surely one of them should be considered the tournament favorite for the championship, which begins Monday for 116th consecutive year.*
*Amazingly, we could write the same lead to this story, but just change a couple of names. Like this:
Tim Conover is the defending North & South Amateur champion. Ben Wong is coming off a USGA championship. Surely one of them should be considered the tournament favorite for the championship, which begins Monday for the 117th consecutive year.
Conover has had a fine year since surprising even himself in winning the North & South. And Ben Wong won on Pinehurst No. 2 just four weeks ago – at the 2017 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship. Amazing.
Or the favorite could be any number of players with past North & South experience, especially with the championship returning to the demanding Pinehurst No. 2 for all rounds. Or it could be a player with a combination of North & South and USGA championship experience.*
*This is a long list as well for this year.
Or, it could be anyone at all in the deep field, much like Walsh himself, who despite a strong junior season at Gonzaga in 2015 came into the North & South under the radar before beating George Cunningham 3 & 1 to earn his first Putter Boy trophy.*
*Speaking of George Cunningham, he reached the semifinals again last year, and is back in the field again this year.
And so now, here’s our attempt to highlight some of the top contenders for the 117th North & South Amateur. And if you don’t see the name of the eventual champion here when you check back next week, it wouldn’t be anything new.
But, after seeing this list, it will certainly have been impressive.
TIM CONOVER The defending champion must get his due, and Conover gets it here. Moreover, Conover had previous success in the North & South even before winning, reaching the match play quarterfinals in 2015. He’s had a brilliant season at East Carolina this year, winning the 2016 Wolfpack Fall Intercollegiate and 2017 East Carolina Intercollegiate to go with five top 10 finishes. And he’s still only a junior.
BEN WONG Anyone who followed Wong and his fellow teenage teammate Frankie Capan as they toured No. 2 in winning the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball knows the SMU recruit has a ton of game. Carrying the trophy following his dramatic win, Wong remarked that he had never played in the North & South, but that “it’s going to be awesome to be back here in a month.” Never doubt confidence and momentum.
CAMERON CHAMP We’ll let Golf.com’s Jeff Ritter tell the story here, since it was just a week ago:
Meet Cameron Champ, the young man bestowed with the greatest name in the field, if not golf history. He’s gearing up for his senior year on the Texas A&M University golf team, and on summer break he decided to take a stab at qualifying for his first-ever U.S. Open. Now here he is. On Thursday he celebrated his 22nd birthday at Erin Hills. On Friday he completed his second round. How’s that working out?
He’s five under, thick in the hunt. Oh, and he’s leading the field in driving distance.
That’s right: Champ is hitting it past Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. He’s also whipping each of them on the leader board. It’s been a remarkable performance, but the story doesn’t feel like a fluke. It feels like the birth of a future star.
WILL GRIMMER By now, you know Grimmer’s ties to Pinehurst. He’s Kid 59, he played as the youngest competitor in the 2014 U.S. Open, has a couple of North & South Amateurs under his belt and even played U.S. Kids events here. And at the Four-Ball, he added to his story, teaming with Clark Engle to earn medalist honors after stroke play. Grimmer, who won this season at Ohio State, is always comfortable in Pinehurst.
DAVID KOCHER Just like Grimmer, Kocher always seems to play well in Pinehurst events. A standout already in Carolinas amateur golf, Kocher also starred at the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball, reaching match play in the event for the second straight year (despite at least one wild hole one day). Kocher already has his named emblazoned in bronze in the History Hall at Pinehurst as the 2014 North & South Junior champion. He’s hoping to become the second player to win both the Junior and Men’s North & South championships (Michael Cromie).
ALEX SMALLEY Like Champ, Smalley is coming off playing in the U.S. Open in Erin Hills. He also was the medalist at the 2016 U.S. Amateur at Oakland Hills, recording the second-lowest stroke play total in U.S. Amateur history. He’s one of Duke’s top players, earning five top 5 finishes this season, and is a veteran of the North & South Amateur.
GEORGE CUNNINGHAM Cunningham played for the North & South Amateur championship in 2015, then returned in 2016 and marched to the semifinals before falling just short again. Cunningham had a strong junior year at Arizona, leading the Wildcats in scoring average (73.06) and was par or better in a third of his competitive rounds.
OTHERS TO WATCH As always the field is deep, and any number of players could storm to a win this week. Here are a few more names to watch:
A.J. Beechler – He’s coming off leading the local Pinecrest Patriots to another state title, and he’s an absolute bulldog on the course. It’s a big future for Beechler.
Eric Bennett – Every year, Pinehurst hosts a caddie tournament. It’s been happening as long as there have been caddies at Pinehurst and is named after legendary looper Fletcher Gaines, who won the tournament a record seven times. Bennett, though, has now won five times. Now he takes his chances at the North & South.
Joshua Martin – One of the best junior players to ever come out of Pinehurst, Martin won the Donald Ross Junior Championship three times. He’s always a threat at home.
William Register – A veteran of Carolinas Golf amateur events and multitime North & South competitor, Register reached the semifinals a year ago.
Eric Bae – Bae won the 2016 high school state championship for himself and his team, the local Pinecrest Patriots, with a clutch birdie putt at the last hole.
Zachary Bachou – One of the best junior golfers of the last few years, Bachou nearly won the North & South in 2013 before falling in a tight match against Andrew Dorn.
Stephen Franken – The N.C. State golfer was the medalist following stroke play the 2016 North & South.
Louis Dobbelaar – From Australia, the youngest player in the field at 16 years old is the cousin of Pinehurst No. 9 golf professional Gordon McKinlay.