Hopefully a banner U.S. Am leads to USGA’s quick return to Chicago

The 115th U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields couldn’t have gone much better.

The weather was great, the champion showed potential for long-term greatness and Fox Sports – new to golf broadcasting – presented Olympia Fields in a very positive light. Dave Allard, the club’s chairman for the event, said U.S. Golf Assn. officials told him that Olympia’s greens were the best for a USGA championship this year – and that’s saying a lot since the organization puts on 20 such tournaments at some of the country’s best courses.

There’s only one problem. The USGA isn’t coming back – at least not for a long while. For the first time in at least four decades not one of the USGA championships is scheduled for the Chicago area. Golf’s ruling body in the U.S. generally schedules at least five years in advance. Its biggest event, the U.S. Open, already has sites determined through 2024.

Tom O’Toole, the USGA president, underwent a screening from select golf media about the scheduling issue and stressed that “Olympia Fields has done a fabulous job.’’

So, why no USGA events coming beyond qualifiers for national tournaments? O’Toole didn’t shed much light on that but said it was nothing personal.

“We’d like to continue our history in Chicago because it’s been a rich one,’’ said O’Toole. “There’s a wonderful plethora of clubs here.’’

Olympia Fields, of course, is just one of them and – rather than belabor the future schedule issue – now it’s more appropriate to celebrate another rich moment in Chicago golf history. Thirteen U.S. Amateur Championships have been played in Chicago or its suburbs and the first one at Olympia Fields had to be one of the best – a bonus for the club, which used the event to highlight its Centennial celebration.

The U.S. Amateur made its first Chicago appearance in 1897 at Chicago Golf Club, the site for the championship four times. It was also played at Onwentsia, in Lake Forest; Glenview Club, Flossmoor, Beverly, North Shore (twice), Knollwood and Cog Hill. The Cog Hill version, won by Matt Kuchar, was the most recent. It was played in 1997.

Olympia Fields hosted the U.S. Senior Open the same year Cog hosted the Amateur – a banner year in Chicago golf history. In landing the Amateur, Olympia was able to spotlight its two recently-renovated courses. It was the last Chicago course to host U.S. Open, in 2003 when Jim Furyk won the title. This U.S. Amateur may have measured up better than that Open did. Olympia’s North Course didn’t prove to be the monster that most Open venues have been.

For the U.S. Amateur, though, it was ideal. The North and South layouts contrasted nicely for the 36 holes of stroke play that started tournament week for 312 qualifiers, and the North offered all kinds of interesting challenges for the 64 match play survivors.

There could be only one winner, of course, and that turned out to be Bryson DeChambeau, a senior at Southern Methodist University from Clovis, Calif. He was clearly the best of the lot. Rain delays, caddie changes, a bad tee shot at a critical moment. Nothing was going to keep DeChambeau from joining some of golf’s most elite company.

In winning at Olympia Fields Country Club DeChambeau joined Jack Nicklaus (1961), Phil Mickelson (1990), Tiger Woods (1996) and Ryan Moore (2004) as the only players to win the NCAA Championship and the U.S. Amateur in the same year.

Both finalists, DeChambeau and Derek Bard, earned berths in next year’s Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, but there were few other similarities in their status after the title match. DeChambeau was just too good. He never played beyond the 16th hole in his first five matches and had even less trouble with Bard in the 36-hole final, winning 7 and 6 with a torrid nine holes immediately after the lunch break. That was one of the widest victory margins since the tourney was inaugurated in 1895.

“I kept putting the pedal to the metal,’’ said DeChambeau. “I wanted to play Bryson golf, and that’s what I did. I just made everything.’’

A physics major at SMU, DeChambeau, 21, opened birdie-birdie to go 2-up quickly, but that lead didn’t last. Bard, a 20-year old junior at the University of Virginia, won four of five holes in one stretch to go 2-up, but DeChambeau took charge for good after chipping in to win No. 8.

The 47-minute rain delay didn’t help, but he battled back to get to all square and then won Nos. 14, 15 and 16 to claim the lead for good. There were some moments of adversity, though.

During the 42-minute lunch break DeChambeau’s regular caddie, Mike Sly, told him that he couldn’t continue on the bag in the afternoon. A case of plantar fasciitis was too painful. No problem. DeChambeau called on a friend who had carried his bag occasionally in the past and only briefly lost momentum.

His first tee shot of the afternoon round sailed left into the woods, and he was lucky to find his ball. Still, no real problem. Bard, who had won No. 18 to conclude the morning round, took advantage of DeChambeau’s rare muff to win that hole, too. Still, DeChambeau wasn’t ruffled.

He went on a tear, stringing one great iron shot after another and backing up those approaches with brilliant putting. He had Bard dormie after winning No. 10 and closed out the match when Bard’s birdie putt lipped out on the 30th hole.

It wasn’t just the dominating result that set DeChambeau apart from the field during the week. It was also his unconventional style. His trademark is a cap like the one Ben Hogan wore. He also spoke proudly of going to the same college as the late, great Payne Stewart, who also wore similar headgear.

DeChambeau’s clubs are also unusual. The shafts are all the same length, that of a standard 6-iron. His style for lining up putts is different, too. He lines them up with his putter in a horizontal position rather than the usual vertical method – like taking aim with a gun. And, his training methods include cursive writing backwards with his left hand (he’s right-handed) because it improves the sensitivity in his hands.

“Obviously he’s a very smart kid,’’ sad Bard. “I was prepared for all that. Whatever works –and this week it worked for him pretty well.’’