Noah Goodwin fought hard for his comeback victory in the 2017 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship after a disappointing loss in the final the previous year. Goodwin had no idea that his triumph over Matthew Wolff would not only be satisfying but also incredibly consequential.
Last fall, the USGA announced that the champions of the U.S. Junior Amateur and the U.S. Mid-Amateur would be granted exemptions into the following year’s U.S. Open.
“It was a rush of emotions and a dream come true,” the Texas teen said Monday at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, where he will make his U.S. Open debut on Thursday. “Any teenager dreams of playing in the U.S. Open, and you always visualize making that putt to win the U.S. Open. So to have that dream come true at just 17 years old is something I could have never wished for.”
And yet here he is, one of six players in the field for the 118th U.S. Open who have won the U.S. Junior Amateur.
You might have heard of a few of the others, starting with Tiger Woods, who has won three U.S. Open titles among a record-tying nine USGA championships, and Jordan Spieth, the 2015 U.S. Open winner who played nine holes with Goodwin on Monday. Spieth (2009 and 2011) and Woods are the only multiple Junior Amateur champions.
Along with Johnny Miller, Woods (who won a record three straight Junior Ams from 1991-93) and Spieth are the only men in history to win the U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Open.
Also in the field is 2003 Junior Am winner Brian Harman, who last year finished tied for second in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills after holding the 54-hole lead.
Filling out the roster are Will Zalatoris and Philip Barbaree, who won their U.S. Junior Amateur crowns in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and had to survive sectional qualifying to get here. Zalatoris, 21, the former Wake Forest standout who recently turned pro, emerged from the rugged Columbus, Ohio, sectional by shooting 7-under 137 at Brookside Golf & Country Club and The Lakes G&CC. Barbaree, 19, a rising junior at Louisiana State University, was co-medalist with his LSU teammate Jacob Bergeron at Shadow Hawk Golf Club in Richmond, Texas, posting 11-under 133.
“This is something I’ve always dreamed of,” Zalatoris said after winning one of 14 spots in Columbus amid a field of 120 players, many with PGA Tour experience, including major champions Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley and Stewart Cink. “To play 36 holes under this kind of pressure … I left a few out there, but I also made some big shots when I needed them. This means the world to me, because you always want to challenge yourself in the ultimate test, and Shinnecock is going to be a great test.
“I’ve waited a long time to get this opportunity,” he added with a huge grin. “I’m playing really well right now, so I feel ready for the next step, even though I know it’s going to be hard.”
Barbaree could relate, especially after his performance at Shadow Hawk.
“The key was being loose and just trying to make as many birdies as possible,” he said in winning one of three sectional berths. “I hope that feeling carries over.”
A four-time AJGA Rolex Junior All-American, Barbaree, who rallied from 5 down with eight to play to beat Andrew Orischak in 37 holes at Colleton River, played nine holes Monday with Russell Knox and Brian Stuard, and picked up a few pointers. “I’m eager to see how I stack up this week against the best players in the world,” he said.
Obviously, the USGA felt that the current U.S. Junior Amateur champion would be capable of holding his own in its biggest championship. Barbaree applauded the move to grant the winner an exemption.
“If you can win the Junior Am … that’s one of the hardest weeks in golf playing all those holes against the best juniors in the world,” said Barbaree, who is joined this week by fellow LSU products Bergeron, Luis Gagne and Sam Burns, who also is competing as a professional. “If you can do that and stand the test, it tells you how good a player you really are, so to add that exemption I think is another sign that we’re capable of competing and we’re deserving. It’s great to see all of us here and I think we’ll show we’re ready to play.”
Many recent Junior Amateur champions such as Goodwin boast impressive resumes. Last year, Goodwin joined Woods, Harman, Phil Mickelson and Tracy Phillips as the only players to be named American Junior Golf Association Rolex Junior Boys Player of the Year in consecutive years.
“You see a lot more juniors qualifying for tournaments like the U.S. Am, and you see a lot more juniors going far in tournaments like the U.S. Am.,” said Goodwin, who enrolled at Southern Methodist University in January. “I think the biggest thing is that the tournaments at the junior level, such as the AJGA, U.S. Junior, they're finally preparing kids at a much faster rate than ever before. So that's what I mean by the lines are starting to become more blurred.”
Goodwin said that Cole Hammer, who qualified for the 2015 U.S. Open when he was just 15 years old – the third-youngest player in championship history – and who also won the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship last month with partner Garrett Barber, got the ball rolling.
“That really blew up for the junior golf world,” Goodwin said. “And ever since then, it's just becoming more and more [juniors]. Walker Lee last year, and then Philip and everybody this year.”
In all, there are 20 amateurs among the 156 players in this week’s U.S. Open, the most since 1962 at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club. That augurs for quite a competition for low-amateur honors. Who’s to say a junior couldn’t walk away with that prize.
“That’s what we’re all shooting for, not to just make the cut but also to be the low amateur,” said Barbaree, who arrived at Shinnecock last Wednesday. “I’m trying to do everything I can to make this as long a week as possible. I feel like any one of us has a shot. But it’s going to be a great experience no matter what happens.”
Dave Shedloski is a Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.