Just an eagle: One player’s perspective of competing in a U.S. Amateur Qualifier

Jack Reeves tees off on the 10th hole at Desert Highlands Golf Club in Scottsdale during the U.S. Amateur Qualifier Thursday. The former Northern Iowa golfer was hoping to stand out among some of the top amateur golfers in the West. (Photo by Grace Hand/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE – One hole to play, I need an eagle to advance. From 245 yards away on the par-5 closing hole, I hit a cut off the left side of the green, tracking right on the flag, waiting for the ball to land.

A potential spot in the 124th U.S. Amateur Championship awaits.

Four hours earlier, I started my round at Desert Highlands Golf Club, looking to finish in the top eight of the 76-player qualifier field. If I make the cut, I advance to the final qualifying stage, looking to eventually make the field at Hazeltine National.

Throughout my amateur and collegiate career at the University of Northern Iowa, the U.S. Amateur remained a huge goal. I have competed in many qualifiers across the West Coast, each time falling short. My college golf career ended in May 2023, but the chance to qualify for the U.S. Am is still a big opportunity.

An eagle would mean the world and get me across the finish line.

The field was full of current and past college players, along with the best junior and amateur players in the Valley, all of which have the dream of playing in one of the most prestigious golf tournaments in the world.

Since 1895, the U.S. Amateur has determined the country’s best amateur player through six grueling days of stroke and match play.

Every year, the winner enters elite company. Greats such as Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and Matthew Fitzpatrick have been champions in the past. The champion earns invitations to the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, while the runner-up earns invitations to the Masters and U.S. Open.

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A tournament of this level is not only one of the hardest to win but one of the hardest to qualify for. Last year, 8,253 players entered local qualifying sites for the U.S. Amateur. By the end of qualification, only 312 players were competing at Cherry Hills Country Club, last year’s championship host course.

The USGA chose Desert Highlands Golf Club to be the host qualifying course in Arizona this year. Founded in 1983 and designed by Jack Nicklaus, the course plays just over 7,000 yards with demanding tee shots and undulating green contours that aren’t for the faint of heart.

The test was one of, if not the hardest setups I have seen. The pin placements were extremely severe. Almost all of them were tucked away on shelves, requiring a precise approach to have a decent look.

The course itself was in great shape, with the greens running very fast at just under an 11 on the Stimpmeter, a tool used to determine the speed of the greens. The temperature reached a high of 111 degrees, drying out the course as the day progressed.

Fortunately for me, I teed off at 7:40 a.m. with the second group. No matter how many times I’ve stepped on the first tee, it never gets easier. My body feels numb and all swing thoughts have left my body. Somehow, someway, I just want to get the ball in play.

As Woods once said, “If you don’t feel nervous, that means you don’t care about how you play. I’ve always said, the day I’m not nervous playing is the day I quit.”

The nerves were there. I got the ball in play off the first tee, made par and was off.

It was a grinder of a day. If you missed the fairway off the tee, you were most likely hitting another one. This resulted in big numbers all over the course, which eventually slowed down play on the back nine.

I made three birdies on my front side but lost a ball, which resulted in a double bogey. I turned with a 1-over 37 and was in a decent position heading into the back nine.

Out of the 76 players in the field, only 64 finished. Who knows if it was the heat, the difficult golf course or maybe a little of both. Nonetheless, 12 people not finishing is extremely rare.

Stations filled with water could be found around every three holes. No matter how much you had, your body still seemed dehydrated and drained in the heat. It was a constant battle to keep your body and mind ready to compete.

Most telling about the difficulty of the overall conditions were the final results. Not one person finished under par. Not one. I’m not sure I have ever played in or seen a tournament where nobody was under par.

Jack Reeves reads the 18th green during the U.S. Amateur Qualifier. A strong front nine set him up nicely for the rest of the competition. (Photo by Grace Hand/Cronkite News)

Jack Reeves reads the 18th green during the U.S. Amateur Qualifier. A strong front nine set him up nicely for the rest of the competition. (Photo by Grace Hand/Cronkite News)

The medalist was Cole Nygren of Denver at even par. The closest to finishing under par was Jake Byrum, who was 2 under with three holes to play. Unfortunately, Byrum made a quintuple bogey 10, on the 17th hole. He finished at 4 over and missed the cut by one.

Although I didn’t make a 10, I did double my 11th hole, losing the momentum from the front nine. Heading into my last hole, my caddie told me the cut was likely at 3 over, meaning I needed to eagle my last hole to keep the U.S. Amateur dream alive.

It all came down to the approach shot, with the ball right in line with the flag. I hit it really well, maybe too well. A straight down wind shot and with it being as hot as it was, the green was going to be hard to hold. The ball landed and bounced over the green.

I did what I needed to and hit the right shot, I just didn’t get the result. Now it came down to a chip. I gave it a run, missed a foot left of the hole and missed the 10-foot birdie putt coming back.

I finished the day at 5-over 76, tied for 17th place, two strokes off advancing.

The eight players who survived Desert Highlands were Nygren, Tony Hendricks, Brasen Briones, Sean O’Donnell, Andrew Bowers, Vincent Cervantes, Michael Martin and Kurt Watkins. They all moved on to final qualifying, the last stop before the U.S. Amateur.

Besides Nygren, all qualifiers were from Arizona. Cervantes is a Hamilton High School product and Marquette commit. Hendricks is a Brophy Prep grad, who played collegiately at UCLA and Loyola Marymount. We will see in a month whether any of these eight end up in the U.S. Amateur.

It sadly wasn’t my day in the end.

The U.S. Amateur always has and will be a dream to play in. There is nothing quite like the nervous rush that comes from playing in these tournaments. The reality is, I will never not be nervous on that first tee, so like Tiger, I have no plans on quitting any time soon.

Sports Digital Reporter, Phoenix

Jack Reeves expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. He previously graduated in May 2023 from the University of Northern Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in sports public relations.

Grace Hand(she/her/hers)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Grace Hand expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Hand attended Sacred Heart University for her bachelor’s degree in sports communication and media with a minor in digital marketing. Hand is pursuing a career in the NHL.