Field strengthened by exemptions to world’s top 50 players August 13, 2012 By David Shefter, USGA

Pedro Figueiredo, of Portugal, is thankful for the World Amateur Golf Ranking exemption that gets the top 50 players into the U.S. Amateur. (John Mummert/USGA) 

Cherry Hills Village, Colo. – Pedro Figueiredo has a résumé that any elite golfer would envy.

In 2008, the 21-year-old from Portugal won the British Boys Amateur, the Irish Amateur and Portuguese Amateur. Earlier this summer, he was a quarterfinalist at the British Amateur and last year he finished tied for 23rd at the Portugal Masters, a tournament on the PGA European Tour.

But until this week, the UCLA senior had never competed at the U.S. Amateur.

Thanks to his No. 23 position on the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR) administered jointly by The R&A and USGA, Figueiredo had a spot in this year’s field because the top 50 players in the ranking are exempt from qualifying

The same is true for Sebastian Cappelen of Denmark. The two-time honorable-mention All-American at the University of Arkansas was exempt into his first U.S. Amateur as a result of his high world ranking (currently No. 31).

Marcel Schneider of Germany claimed this year’s Australian Amateur and was the runner-up at three additional national amateurs (Turkey, Spain and Portugal) to reach No. 6 in the WAGR. He’s also a U.S. Amateur rookie this week.

Two years ago, it’s likely that none of these talented players would have been playing the U.S. Amateur. The USGA did not extend WAGR exemptions, so the only way to earn a place in the field was to play in one of the 36-hole sectional qualifiers in the U.S., which can be a costly trip for an international golfer with no guaranteed spot in the field. Financially, it made more sense to play in Europe.

But, in 2011, the USGA took the bold step of offering U.S. Amateur exemptions to the top 50 ranked players in the WAGR. This year, 23 golfers, including first-round leader Bobby Wyatt, of Mobile, Ala., got into the championship solely on that exemption category. A total of 31 players from the WAGR top 50 are in this week’s field representing 13 countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chinese Taipei, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Portugal, South Africa and the United States.

It might be called the U.S. Amateur, but this championship has certainly gone global.

I think every European who is in the top 50 is here playing this week like my buddy Ricardo [Gouveia] from Portugal, said Figueiredo, a second-team All-American this past year for the Bruins. He would never be here if the rule didn’t apply.

You never saw guys from Europe come to qualify [in the past]. It’s very hard for us to come here for a day to play a qualifier when two out of 70 guys make it.

It’s not as if Europe doesn’t have high quality competitions. Many of Europe’s best play the British Amateur in June as well as the recently contested European Amateur.

John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of Rules and Competitions, said that for the past two years, the U.S. Amateur has been among the four elite amateur events as rated by the WAGR, along with the British, Asian and European amateurs. The WAGR uses a 52-week cycle to rank both male and female golfers.

In an effort to strengthen the field of the U.S. Amateur, the USGA decided the time was right to utilize the WAGR as an exemption category starting in 2011. Bodenhamer said it could take three or four years of data to effectively evaluate the change, but so far the USGA is very pleased with the results.

Every USGA amateur championship, from the U.S. Junior Amateur to the USGA Senior Amateur, has an exemption category for the WAGR. In 2012, the Junior Amateur provided spots to anyone within the top 400, while the Amateur Public Links took the top 75.

In 2012, The R&A and the USGA began jointly administering the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking and it already has paid dividends. Minjee Lee, 16, of Australia, who would not have competed in last month’s U.S. Girls’ Junior at Lake Merced in Daly City, Calif., without the WAGR exemption, went on to claim the championship.

Lydia Ko, 15, of New Zealand, recipient of the 2011 Mark H. McCormack Medal for being the No. 1 female amateur in the WAGR, took the U.S. Women’s Amateur last week at The Country Club in Cleveland, beating world No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn in the semifinals and world No. 7 Jaye Marie Green in the 36-hole final.

Extending WAGR exemptions allows us to remove some hurdles that previously made it difficult for some of the world’s best amateurs to compete in USGA championships, said Bodenhamer. A lot of people didn’t know the name Lydia Ko last year [when she was WAGR No. 1], but once people saw her play, it was, ‘OK, we get it now.’

It’s just a positive to have a stronger international field.

And the players, particularly the foreign ones, appreciate having the chance to compete in another world-class competition. Many consider the U.S. Amateur to be the top championship in amateur golf.

It’s certainly among the most democratic. While the U.S. Amateur offers plenty of exemption categories, the majority of the 312 players must go through 36 holes of sectional qualifying. The British Amateur – and all amateur competitions conducted by The R&A – strictly uses the WAGR and handicaps to determine the fields. Players can’t qualify for those championships.

Bodenhamer doesn’t envision a day when the U.S. Amateur – or any other USGA competition, for that matter – would go to an entirely exempt field. But that doesn’t mean the USGA won’t expand exemptions for top players in the WAGR.

This fall, representatives from The R&A and the USGA will gather at Golf House in Far Hills, N.J., to discuss the ranking process. Many people don’t fully comprehend the mathematical formula that determines the rankings, nor do they understand how championships are rated according to strength of field.

The R&A and the USGA are continuously reviewing ways to enhance the WAGR, said Bodenhamer. We are always looking at ways to improve the WAGR ranking methodology. We continue to consider how results are best collected, tabulated and weighed. WAGR will soon also be unveiling a revamped website, which will provide enhanced player tracking and further promote and explain the WAGR ranking process.

Bodenhamer also said it will likely take a few more years to fully grasp how the rankings have affected the championships. Is 50 the right number for U.S. Amateur exemptions? Is 25 right for the Women’s Amateur? Bodenhamer noted that a couple of good American players just missed getting exemptions into the Women’s Amateur this year because they were ranked just outside the top 25.

Figueiredo was in that position last year. While taking summer classes at UCLA, he attempted to qualify to play in the 2011 U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills and failed to make the field. This year, he got inside the top 50 and avoided sectional qualifying.

There are some very good players who are not here, said Figueiredo, who will represent Portugal at the World Amateur Team Championship in Turkey this fall. [And] there’s a lot of people who I have never seen before from small schools. They can have a good day [at qualifying] and be here.

Of course, it’s a very strong field.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.