Pinehurst welcomes US Amateur

Featuring 40-somethings to teen phenoms, the USGA event can be a launchpad to the pros

Kevin O’Connell, a former UNC golfer from Cary, putts during the first day of the U.S. Amateur on Monday at Pinehurst. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

PINEHURST — Scott Harvey is a 41-year-old property manager from Greensboro competing in his ninth U.S. Amateur. Akshay Bhatia is a 17-year-old golf prodigy from Wake Forest competing in his second.

Despite their obvious differences, about the only thing that really separates them this week on the courses of Pinehurst Resort is the number of Motrin they had to take after finishing their rounds at the USGA’s oldest championship.

They both came into the competition with the same goal of advancing to match play. Both shot the same score of 72 in the opening round of stroke play on Monday. And while they are excited and honored to be playing in such a prestigious tournament in their home state, both the up-and-coming youngster and the hardened veteran are approaching the U.S. Amateur as just another day at the office.

“You just take it as the day goes on,” said Bhatia, the 2018 U.S. Junior Amateur runner-up who is expected to turn pro after next month’s Walker Cup matches in England. “If you play good golf, you’re going to score well.”

Bhatia is no stranger to Pinehurst’s famed No. 2 course. He made a hole-in-one on the par-3 17th hole when he was just 12 years old.

Akshay Bhatia of Wake Forest hits out of the rough on the 18th hole of Pinehurst No. 2 on Monday (Brett Friedlander/North State Journal)

Harvey has had even more experience. But even after dozens of rounds in USGA championship play, including the 2014 Mid-Amateur title, one of the oldest players in the field said there’s still something special about teeing it up against top competition so close to home.

“That makes it pretty cool, but no matter where you play it’s great,” Harvey said. “It’s the pinnacle of amateur golf. Every time you show up, it’s going to be pristine conditions, and it’s going to test you in every facet of the game and physically as well. It’s easy to get excited about a U.S. Amateur.”

It’s just not as easy as it used to be recovering from 18 grueling holes in the summer sun.

“The golf ball doesn’t know how old I am,” he said after his opening round. “So when I’m out there, I don’t feel like there’s anything (the younger players) can do that I can’t. The only thing that gets me is that I get tired. I’ve taken four ibuprofen in the last hour. That’s just the way it is and I’m fine with that.”

Harvey and Bhatia are two of the 15 players from North Carolina in the 312-man medal play field.

Among the others are Kevin O’Connell of Cary, the reigning USGA Mid-Amateur champion; Henry Shimp of Charlotte, who provided the winning point that clinched the college national championship for Stanford earlier this year; Alex Smalley of Greensboro, the 2016 U.S. Amateur stroke play medalist; Blake Wagoner of Cornelius, whose uncle Dan was an NFL defensive back; and John Eades of Charlotte, making his first U.S. Amateur appearances since 2001.

There are also several players representing state colleges attempting to be among the 64 advancing to match play, including four from North Carolina and three from Duke.

Greensboro’s Scott Harvey didn’t qualify for match play at the U.S. Amateur (USGA photo/Darren Carroll)

Although most have local knowledge of the layouts being used, there isn’t much of a home course advantage when the USGA is involved.

The medal play portion of the tournament was contested on Pinehurst’s courses No. 2 and No. 4, which competitors playing 18 holes on each before the field was trimmed for the start of match play on Wednesday. The 36-hole final is scheduled for Sunday.

Five state golfers — Bhatia, Wagoner, Shimp, Cary’s Parker Gilliam and Raleigh’s Ryan Gerard — made the cut into match play.

“This is my third U.S. Amateur, so I have a good sense of what it’s like now, and then being from Charlotte I’ve played at Pinehurst quite a bit,” Shimp said. “I played high school state championships out here, played a couple North Souths. So I’ve been around.

“It doesn’t really make it any easier, but knowing where you just can’t miss and where you need to try to leave your ball certainly is helpful.”

If nothing else, O’Connell — who recently relocated to Florida — said that it never hurts to look over to the gallery and see friendly faces.

“My parents still live in Cary, so I spent the last week or so at their house just playing around here,” the 36-year-old UNC graduate said. “After having played here at the U.S. Am in ’08, it’s fun to come back.”

This is the third U.S. Amateur to be played at Pinehurst. Labron Harris beat Downing Gray for the title in 1962, and Danny Lee beat Drew Kittleson to win in 2008.

While Harvey said he enjoys playing simply for the love of the game, O’Connell is thinking seriously about turning pro for a second time in his career after defending his title at the Mid-Amateur this fall.

Bhatia is also preparing to play for pay. That, he said, only makes this week’s event all the more special.

“The atmosphere out here at Pinehurst for the U.S. Amateur is something you don’t get very often,” the talented teenager said.