Collegians at Junior Amateur Hope Experience Will Pay Off July 16, 2018 | Springfield, N.J. By Stuart Hall

Nick Willis recently completed his first year of college golf at Wofford, and has seen the difference in his game. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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Golfers are notorious for tinkering. They seem to always be in search of those extra few yards off the tee or more accurate iron shots or strokes saved around and on the green.

Nick Willis counts himself among that lot.

But in the year since missing the cut in the 2017 U.S. Junior Amateur, Willis, 18, of Cowpens, S.C., also has worked on his time management and independent thinking. How exactly that will translate into tangible metrics at this week’s championship at Baltusrol Golf Club, he’s not quite sure, but it may be of benefit at some point.

In July, 2016, the USGA announced the raising of the maximum age for the championship from 17 to 18. As a result, a couple of players in this year’s 156-player field — Willis and Kaiwen Liu — already have a year of college golf under their belts. They hope that will give them an edge this week.

“I’d say my game definitely improved,” said Willis of his freshman year at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. “It may not be drastic because at this level every step forward is hard to get to, but I’d say I’m a lot more consistent, have a lot more control of my golf ball.

“And the amount of responsibility I’ve had over the past year has definitely increased more than any other time in my life, especially being on my own for the first time. You have to make every decision by yourself, but at the end of the day it makes you a better player because it’s your game, you get to do what you want to with it and, if it matters to you, you will be good at it.”

Golf mattered enough to Willis that after a disappointing fall season, one in which he finished no higher than 36th in four starts, he recalibrated his goals for the spring. Among them was making the Southern Conference All-Freshman Team, which he accomplished after recording four top-30 finishes.

Liu, 18, of San Diego, Calif., can empathize, and had a more succinct summation to describe his first year at the University of California-Berkeley.

“Maturity,” said Liu, who is playing in his third U.S. Junior Amateur.

Similar to Willis, the freshman fall and spring seasons were trials by fire for Liu. Searching for his name down the results page was in stark contrast to when Liu was in contention in high-level junior competitions. His best outing for the Golden Bears was a tie for ninth in the spring, and he concluded his year with a tie for 26th in the NCAA Regionals.

“I didn’t play as well I would have liked, and I knew I had to become better,” Liu admits. “I may have been stressing out a little. I had to learn how to balance my golf and my studies better than I did in high school. I have to keep working on it, but that was a main lesson for me.”

Kaiwen Liu struggled out of the gate during his freshman year at Cal, but had a stronger spring season. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

Perhaps a bit extreme, but Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” could apply to both Willis and Liu.

“I was just so hard on myself that I probably wasn’t enjoying the game as much as I should have,” Liu said. “I learned that it is really important for me to go out and have fun.”

Implementing the new mindset has not been easy, but Liu is beginning to see benefits. He finished tied for 16th in the Sahalee Players Championship in Sammamish, Wash., earlier this month and earned one of three U.S. Amateur spots available at the qualifier at Cypress Ridge Golf Course in Arroyo Grande, Calif., on July 9.

“Maturity probably gives you more perspective and a better attitude,” he said. “Just one year of growing up makes a difference.”

In terms of playing at the collegiate level, Willis said the “the pin positions are much more difficult and the greens, I feel like, are firmer and faster.” The tournament fields are deeper, as well, but Willis does not believe he or Liu has a distinct advantage this week because of that one year on campus.

“I had to qualify just like everyone else here,” he said. “I really don’t think there is anything that I can think of that gives me an absolute advantage. Everyone out here works their tails off no matter where they’re at in life or what age. So, I guess I just have been doing it a little bit longer.”

In October, the USGA announced that the U.S. Junior Amateur champion, along with the U.S. Mid-Amateur, U.S. Girls’ Junior and U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur champions, will be exempt from qualifying for the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open, respectively.

That dangling carrot could grow larger as the week unfolds.

“I’d say it may not affect players in the stroke play portion or the [match play] rounds of 64 or 32, but when you get to those last few matches, that’s when it’s likely to come up in the back of your mind,” Willis said. “I’m sure whoever winds up in the final match, that thought will be there. And I think the person who thinks about it the least will be the one going.”

Perhaps that is where maturity will pay off.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA digital channels.

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