Latecomer Hopkins Hones Game on Florida Amateur Circuit
August 13, 2019 | Pinehurst, N.C.
By Stuart Hall
When Devon Hopkins tied for fifth in last year’s Florida State Golf Association’s Florida Open, the finish was the best and most significant of his career. That may not seem especially noteworthy, considering he has played since age 7 and is now 29. For context, though, Hopkins never played competitively on the junior circuit or collegiately. And while he briefly played professionally, that portion of his resume shows only a handful of Florida mini-tour events that cost him a lot more than he earned.
His path to qualifying for two 2019 USGA championships, including this week’s 119th U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, is unusual among the 312 players here.
“I believe I can compete at a high level and I have the confidence, but it had not really been built up because I didn’t really have any experience to warrant a lot of confidence yet,” said Hopkins, a native of South Africa who works as an account executive for Aetna and lives in Jacksonville, Fla.
That Florida Open finish last July certainly ignited his game, because a month later he and partner Matt Kleinrock birdied the 17th and 18th holes to win medalist honors in a 2019 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship qualifier at Kensington Golf & Country Club in Naples, Fla.
“All of a sudden we were like, ‘We’re going to Bandon Dunes to play a USGA event,’” Hopkins said. “[Kleinrock] had played in the U.S. Am at Winged Foot [Golf Club in 2004], so it’s not that he had a lot of USGA experience, but he said ‘You just get ready, you’re going to be in heaven when you play in a USGA event.’”
Hopkins recalls riding along the road into Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in May, seeing the huge USGA banners.
“It was a bucket list item playing at Bandon; it was my first USGA event and I got to do it with my buddy,” he said. “Honestly at that point I had this feeling that I want to do this as many times as I can, because it’s the coolest feeling.”
That feeling has not subsided after a 4-over 74 on Course No. 4 on Monday in his U.S. Amateur debut. He got here by earning medalist honors with rounds of 69-68 on July 16 at Fox Hollow Golf Club in Trinity, Fla.
“My goal coming into the week was to play No. 2 as many times as I can because you’ll get your money’s worth,” he joked. “And how many times are you going to come out here and play it in tournament conditions?”
Born in Escourt, South Africa, Hopkins learned the game from his stepfather, Geoffrey Hardwick, a solid amateur player who competed against PGA Tour players Tim Clark and Rory Sabbatini in their younger days. The family eventually moved to St. Charles, Ill., and soon Hopkins became a caddie at St. Charles Country Club.
Hopkins played for his high school team and earned a caddie scholarship from the Evans Scholars Foundation to Northern Illinois University, but was not good enough to walk on for the Huskies team. A few years later he was working for Aetna in Milwaukee when he realized his environment was not conducive to his passion for golf.
“I thought to myself, ‘If I am going to do this, then I want to live where I can play golf year-round,’” said Hopkins, who quit his job, moved to Jacksonville in 2014 and envisioned turning professional. For nearly two years, he honed his game by day and bartended by night.
“I kind of ignorantly decided to jump on the mini-tours,” said Hopkins, who turned professional before a Florida Open qualifier, then failed to qualify. “Had no success. I’m paying $500 for a two-day event, then a guy shoots 13 under and I’m shooting even and not even sniffing it. … Bartending money is not enough to float the boat on the mini-tours.”
Hopkins eventually eschewed the professional path, re-entered the 9-to-5 workforce, applied for amateur reinstatement and embraced a new competitive path through the Florida State Golf Association.
“The FSGA is amazing,” he said. “I can load up a fairly full summer schedule and play from March until October in really competitive tournaments against some really good players. The events are more fun, it’s less stressful and the competition is almost as good.”
Since he was a kid, Hopkins has watched the U.S. Amateur and dreamed of one day playing in one. Forget how long it took him to find his niche, all that matters is that he finally realized his goal.
He often jokes to good friend and fellow U.S. Amateur competitor Jordan Batchelor that he views himself like a freshman golfer in college. He does not have a lot of tournament experience, but he’s learning with every opportunity.
“I know I’m a little behind the 8-ball age-wise, but playing golf is like my favorite thing in the world,” he said. “It’s been a blast, having a ton of fun. I believe in myself more than ever because I have proven I can hold up under certain pressure situations.”
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA digital channels.