NORTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 05: Paul Casey acknowledges the crowd on the ninth hole during the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston on September 5, 2016 in Norton, Massachusetts. (Photo by Ryan Young/PGA TOUR)

When They Were Amateurs

NORTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 05: Paul Casey acknowledges the crowd on the ninth hole during the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston on September 5, 2016 in Norton, Massachusetts. (Photo by Ryan Young/PGA TOUR)

ATLANTA ­– That was then. This is now.

The latter is richer, glitzier, and played out in world-class cities on esteemed golf course. But that’s not to say the former didn’t have some cache of its own.

In fact, “it was very important at the time, only we didn’t know how important it would be,” said Paul Casey.

He’s talking about “then,” back before it was play for pay, those days of amateur golf from juniors to collegians. Casey has nothing but fond memories, a sentiment that puts him in grand company because with East Lake Golf Club as a fitting backdrop – the home club of the greatest amateur of ‘em all, Bobby Jones – competitors in this year’s TOUR Championship talk glowingly of the golf they played before turning professional.

“They were very cool days, only you might not know how cool they are until you’re older,” said Matt Kuchar.

Today, Kuchar is 39, a qualifier into the TOUR Championship for an eighth consecutive year. That speaks volumes for his professional fortunes, but it was 20 years ago that golf became truly magical. At 19, Kuchar won the U.S. Amateur with his father, Pete, on his bag. Starts in the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship were a byproduct of that life-changing amateur win, but Kuchar will tell you that his memories stretch even further of that glorious time in his life.

Like that quarter-final match against Sergio Garcia at the 1998 U.S. Amateur at Oak Hill?

“That’s a great memory,” said Kuchar of a match that featured the reigning U.S. Amateur winner against the recently-crowned British Amateur champ. “The crowd was amazing. It was probably double the people who had watched my final match (in 1997) at Cog Hill.”

That Garcia edged Kuchar, 2 and 1, hardly spoils the memory. What the kid from Winter Park, Fla., told reporters that day – “I feel privileged just to have been a part of this” – holds true today. Besides, with a vintage Matt Kuchar grin, he reminds folks that another amateur encounter against the Spaniard went his way.

It was the Scottish Open in 1998, where both Kuchar and Garcia were entered one week before the Open Championship. “Sergio set up a (practice-day) challenge match. He was anxious to get some of Tom Lehman’s money.”

But Kuchar and Lehman beat Garcia and a fellow European amateur star, Justin Rose, just days before Rose was to electrify Open Championship fans at Royal Birkdale.

Funny, how a veteran PGA TOUR guy might not remember what he did in Round 2 of last week’s tournament, but prod him for a memory from his amateur days and get ready for some smiles.

At the recent Dell Technologies Championship, Jordan Spieth had a spark to him as he recalled the first time he played in a tournament with one of his best friends, Justin Thomas. They were 13 (Spieth) and 14 (Thomas) at an AJGA tournament in Mansfield, Texas, and it is a vivid recollection. “He came up and introduced himself on the range. I thought that was cool,” said Thomas.

Yes, Spieth can savor that he won the tournament, while Thomas was joint second, because these were the days of amateur golf, a joy ride for so many. Even those at 41 and with 16 PGA TOUR seasons behind them.

“Loved those days, even though I didn’t have a lot of great memories,” said Pat Perez.

Of course, what win he did have resonates to this day. “I’ll always remember beating Tiger Woods (at the 1993 World Junior at Torrey Pines).” He paused to hit a few wedges on the practice range at East Lake, then shook his head. “It’s the last time I beat him, too.”

Mention of that win got Joe Skovron reminiscing, because he played in the World Junior that same year – in the 11-12 division. “Finished sixth (with rounds of 55-55-58 – 168 for 27 holes) and the top seven got to go to Japan to play in something like the Japan Cup.”


“I finished fourth – but that’s as good as it got. It all went downhill from there. I peaked at 12.”

Skovron laughed, because he’s a shining example of what’s great about amateur golf. He was a pretty good player, the son of parents who used to organize the International Junior Championship, and playing competitively was part of his plan. But when he got paired in his parents’ junior tournament with a kid from Australia named Adam Scott, it was a lesson learned.

“Adam had just shot like 61-62 at the U.S. Junior Am qualifying, and he won our tournament.” Throw in the sterling stuff that a youngster from Skovron’s neighborhood, Rickie Fowler, was doing and well, Skovron was a smart kid. He eventually gravitated into a career as Fowler’s PGA TOUR caddie.

Not that he doesn’t have fond recollections of amateur golf, because he does. In fact, Skovron said he always reminds people that Perez didn’t just beat Woods in that World Junior, but also a heralded player from Venezuela named Gilberto Morales. Perez, of course, needs no reminder.

“He was a stud,” said Perez. “I remember him.”

Likely, it’s because of what Casey insists is a sentiment shared by many golfers. “You always remember that amateur golf was wonderful golf.”