Surrounded by dozens of cameras, a packed grandstand behind the 10th tee, media members and, oh by the way, 18-time major champion and legend Jack Nicklaus, Alice Chen never felt more anxious.
“I’ve never hit a shot in front of this many people,” said Chen, 2017 U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball champion with Taylor Totland. “It was cool.”
It was irrelevant that her drive found the left rough, leaving partner and reigning U.S. Senior Open champion Kenny Perry a difficult approach shot. In fact, the actual golf shots played a secondary role in the inaugural Celebration of Champions event on Tuesday afternoon at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, site of the 118th U.S. Open Championship.
The four-hole, alternate-shot exhibition was a way for the USGA to bring together and celebrate each of its champions from 2017. Twelve players – six sides – participated, with U.S. Open defending champion Brooks Koepka on hand to greet his fellow champions, although he didn’t play. A formal dinner followed the golf, which took place on holes 10-13.
Nicklaus served as the honorary starter and FS1 provided a live broadcast.
“He’s cool,” said Totland. “He’s an awesome guy. He was really friendly and humble and was cracking jokes. That’s just fun to be around people like that.”
Many of the participants arrived at Shinnecock on Monday to take in the pageantry of the U.S. Open.
Chen and Totland took a selfie with Andrew “Beef” Johnston.
Judith Kyrinis, the reigning U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur champion, chatted with U.S. Open competitors and fellow Canadians Mackenzie Hughes, Garrett Rank and alternate Mark Hoffman.
Frankie Capan and Shuai Ming (Ben) Wong, who won the 2017 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball title, hit balls next to 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose on the practice tee.
Asked if Rose gave the duo any advice, Wong jokingly retorted: “We gave him some advice.”
The word “special” came out of the mouths of every participant. Reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Sophia Schubert, fresh off helping the USA reclaim the Curtis Cup on Sunday at Quaker Ridge Golf Club, couldn’t stop smiling. Fellow University of Texas Longhorn and 2017 U.S. Amateur runner-up Doug Ghim, who is in the field this week, served as her caddie. Her mom, Delisa, was snapping pictures and recording video on her smartphone.
Sean Knapp, the U.S. Senior Amateur champion, had his daughter, Kensey, on his bag. U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Matt Parziale, who teamed with Kyrinis, brought his fiancée, Ali Hubbard, to caddie. Chen, Capan and Wong had their fathers on the bag.
“Oh my goodness, I’ve played in two [USGA] finals and I know I was more nervous … and excited,” said Kyrinis. “This was way different. It just went by in a blink, too.”
Kyrinis and Parziale made the lone birdie of the exhibition on the par-4 13th, with the former hitting her 180-yard approach into the wind to 15 feet. Parziale then holed the putt.
All of the participants had access to areas reserved for this week’s competitors. They could visit player hospitality, use the practice area and walk the grounds. Some are staying for Wednesday’s final practice round and early championship rounds. Capan and Wong have discussed going deep-sea fishing while they’re on Long Island.
Totland and Chen were in awe of the players they saw, including nine-time USGA champion Tiger Woods and 2016 U.S. Open champion and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
“Player hospitality was our favorite spot,” said Chen. “We didn’t go up to anyone because we didn’t want to intrude. We felt like that was poor etiquette, so we just watched.”
Even if the golf wasn’t stellar, just playing on the hallowed grounds of Shinnecock Hills was a thrill. Chen said Perry couldn’t have been more personable and “down-to-earth.”
In the end, it will be those memories, not the shots, that will resonate.
“Who cares if you hit it in the bunker or miss a 3-footer,” said Totland. “I’m in this foursome with three other USGA champs. It was really special.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.