We say it every year, and this year will be no different. Trying to predict the champion of the North & South Amateur before play begins – or even before the championship match begins at 12:45 p.m. on Saturday – is likely a fool’s errand.
But when you host the longest consecutively running national amateur championship in the United States, it is worth taking a few minutes to highlight at least some of the top players entering the field as play is set to begin with two rounds of stroke play on Pinehurst Nos. 2 and 4 on Tuesday and Wednesday. Match play begins on Thursday with the Round of 32.
The 122nd Champion may very well not be on this list, and if so, that’s OK. It’s just another testament to the proud history and strong field the North & South brings every summer, a championship that counts Francis Ouimet, Jack Nicklaus, Curtis Strange, Davis Love III, Hal Sutton and Corey Pavin among its past champions.
And so, a brief look at a few of the top-ranked players this year, along with a few stories to watch:
At first, it may feel a bit odd to pair Jackson Van Paris and Chad Wilfong together. One is perhaps the best young local player we’ve seen in the area in a long time, and the other is the oldest player in the field.
But anyone who remembers their epic 20-hole semifinal match a year ago should see no problem pairing Van Paris and Wilfong together here. (Seriously, go read this again. How did this happen?) Following his runner-up in the North & South, Van Paris just finished his freshman season at powerhouse Vanderbilt, and all the 41-year-old Wilfong has done since is team up with Davis Womble to win the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship a month ago to capture his first USGA championship.
China’s Wenyi Ding (Photo by the AJGA)
Wenyi Ding – The Chinese teenager has been a sensation over the last several months, has moved up to 17th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and has not placed outside of the top six in his last 18 starts, which includes a win in the China Amateur and third-place finish in the China Open. Ding has won eight times in the last two years.
Ben James (Photo by amateurgolf.com)
When someone says that you can see the future of golf at the North & South, they’re not wrong. The four top-ranked junior boys’ players are in the field this week:
Ben James – Ranked No. 1 in Golfweek’s Boys’ rankings, James (committed to Virginia) has finished lower than third just once in his last nine AJGA events, winning four of them and finishing as the runner-up twice. In March, he finished third in the prestigious Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, finishing four back of the champion…
Caleb Surratt – The No. 2-ranked junior, Surratt, of Indian Trail, N.C., won the Sage Valley (beating James) in March and has played well since, tying for fourth at the Sunnehanna Amateur two weeks ago and taking third at the Northeast Amateur last week. Surratt has signed to play for Tennessee.
Nick Dunlap – He may be ranked third in the junior rankings, but Dunlap has something the others don’t – he’s the reigning U.S. Junior Amateur Champion, having won the 2021 championship at nearby Country Club of North Carolina last July.
Jonathan Griz, a future teammate of Dunlap’s at Alabama, has long been one of the top juniors in the Carolinas and is ranked eighth currently. He won the 2020 Boys’ North & South Junior Championship. Jackson Bode, who helped local high school powerhouse Pinecrest win another state championship a year ago, comes into the Men’s North & South as the reigning North & South Junior Champion. And Luke Clanton, who has signed to play with Florida State, is the No. 4-ranked junior in the country.
Karl Vilips at the 2019 U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst. (Photo by the USGA)
Karl Vilips – Vilips has played well for so long that even as just a rising junior in college he can be considered a vet. Few players not from Pinehurst have a more intimate knowledge of The Cradle of American Golf than Stanford’s Vilips. As a youth, “Koala Karl” won multiple U.S. Kids World Championships at Pinehurst, has fared well in the North & South in years past, and was a quarterfinalist at the 2019 U.S. Amateur on Pinehurst No. 2. The Australian was a Second Team All-American this year, played half of his rounds at par or better and finished seventh at the NCAA Championship. Vilips was second at last week’s Northeast Amateur.
UNC’s Peter Fountain (Photo by Melissa Schaub)
University of North Carolina teammates Peter Fountain and David Ford make the short trip from Chapel Hill to Pinehurst. Fountain, a North & South quarterfinalist last year, is ranked first all-time in scoring average at UNC, has won twice, was the runner-up in the ACC Championship this year (after winning it the year before) and a First Team All-America. Ford, ranked 28th, was a Second Team All-America and sported a 70.54 scoring average his freshman season, the fourth-lowest in Tar Heels’ history.
Frankie Capan – All Frankie Capan did at Pinehurst was team with Ben Wong to win the 3rd U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship on Pinehurst No. 2. Pretty sure he deserves to be mentioned here…
There are so many other players who have the potential to contend. Clemson’s Zack Gordon, a semifinalist at the North & South last year, won the Wake Forest Invitational on No. 2 in March. Jonathan Yaun, of Liberty, typically performs well in the North & South, and is remembered for shooting a blistering 28 in a 9&8 victory in the 2020 North & South on No. 2. UNC Greensboro graduate Nick Lyerly was the Southern Conference Player of the Year after a scoring average of 69.63. Pinehurst native A.J. Beechler, a senior at East Carolina, nearly won the Wake Forest Invitational on No. 2 this year, finishing third. Kelly Chinn, of Duke, recently moved to Pinehurst and was signed by Duke as the top-ranked junior golfer in the country. Teamed with UNC’s David Ford to earn medalist honors at the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball.