15 Feb 2021 | National Championships | Feature stories |

HAYES: #AusAm lessons critical for next wave

by Mark Hayes

Jeffrey Guan showed decision making well beyond his 16 years, even in the heat of battle. Picture: DAVID BRAND
Jeffrey Guan showed decision making well beyond his 16 years, even in the heat of battle. Picture: DAVID BRAND

In the past few years, I’ve had the good fortune to speak to a handful of winners of the Australian Amateur – some greats and some for whom that moment was their crowning glory in golf.

And without fail, they speak of the importance of the tournament; the lasting memories they carry from their time as the country’s pre-eminent amateur player.

The late Peter Toogood (1954), Bruce Devlin (1959), Bob Shearer (1969), Mike Clayton (1978) and Greg Chalmers (1993) to name but a few on the men’s side; Anne-Marie Knight (1993), Stacey Keating (2010) and Minjee Lee (2013 and 2014) on the women’s – each have expressed joy and significance of that time in the amateur sun.

And if you watch the videos of the winners last week at Kooyonga on Golf Australia’s YouTube channel, you’ll almost see that moment when it dawns on both Grace Kim and Louis Dobbelaar that, at that moment in time, they’re the best non-professional golfer in this vast land.

But go further, check out more videos.

See the anguish in some faces over missed opportunities.

See – as others have in the past before going on to become very polished media performers – their nerves in speaking to someone with a camera.

See the young faces full of hope, dreams and expectations. See some coming to the stark realisation that others are simply better.

It’s the full gamut of emotions. All week.

In Adelaide, there was an extra dimension – a mid-pandemic reunion of sorts among many players who’ve been constant colleagues through junior ranks, yet have been unable to see their interstate mates for a year because of various health and border restrictions.

“I’m here to have fun and enjoy it, especially with everything that’s going on,” said no less a star in the week than Kirsten Rudgeley, the eventual runner-up, when she took the lead on Thursday night.

And the quality of Kooyonga – both in terms of an immaculately presented layout, but also the world-class facilities off the course – that will always be a talking point among those who saw it.

But there’s so much more that may take years to find light.

Here’s a couple of examples …

I watched 16-year-old Jeffrey Guan, a member at The Australian in Sydney, roar home to finish second on debut at the national championship. He played with the intensity of someone playing to feed their family, but was a thorough young gentleman off the course.

I point him out because in him I saw something you rarely see from any young golfer, let alone someone who, at the time, shared the lead late in the final round of a national championship.

Guan, the recent winner of the New South Wales stroke play event, had chipped in on the 15th, then pitched close enough for a second consecutive birdie on the 16th to momentarily join Dobbelaar in the lead, although the Queenslander still had six holes to play at the time.

Guan drove up the right side of the 17th and, with the pin tucked right behind water, firstly was smart enough to aim away and towards the middle of the green.

He was, however, betrayed by the golfing gods who presided over his ball landing hard and bounce enough to scurry into the back bunker, from which any shot towards the pin was straight downhill and an invitation to a watery grave beyond.

Again – remember he’s 16 – Guan played away from the pin, ignoring the obvious call to attack that would have reverberated around every competitive golfer’s brain.

His par putt was a beauty, but went unrewarded, all but dashing his title hopes. Yet he had the presence of mind to ram in a great bogey saver coming back.

These are the type of tales that potentially end in big professional cheques down the road – no pressure, Jeff! – but rarely are witnessed as the crucial stepping stones to becoming the mental master you need to be a world-class professional.

Then there was young Queenslander Haruhi Nakatani, a 14-year-old student of the Robina Sports Academy on the Gold Coast where she’s a member at Surfers Paradise Golf Club.

Nakatani, recent winner of the Tasmanian Junior Masters, had the privilege of playing with eventual champion Kim in the first two rounds.

She’s going to be a good player, one look at her scores – 74-77-82-76 for tenth outright – will testify to that.

But as I watched her – again, no offence, Haruhi – it was clear that she would not trouble Kim last week.

Yet to be an exceptional golfer, you must take your lessons wherever they come and because that cannot always be with your nearest PGA pro, taking one from the Youth Olympic champion on the fly is among the best alternatives you’ll find.

It was on the par-five 16th on day two that I saw the first of those lessons bear fruit. Nakatani might not even realise she did it.

Her 14-year-old clubhead speed simply would not allow a fair competition with a Sydney pro in the making who’d been building to this magic for almost 10 years.

But having been outdriven by up to 30m by Kim a couple of times, the diminutive Gold Coaster flattened out a driver and genuinely nailed it.

Even Kim noticed the difference in sound and trajectory. The end result was that the Nakatani drive eclipsed Kim’s by about 8m.

Nothing was spoken, but you could feel the sense of pride. If I’m not mistaken, I think you could also catch a hint of admiration from Kim.

Both are things you cannot teach; you cannot buy.

Like Guan, its impact will only be felt in years to come.

And these are but two of what would doubtless have been dozens of stories that will have taken place around the hallowed Kooyonga turf.

As great as many of the professional tournaments around the world are, they don’t have the same “feel-good” moments nearly as often as national amateur championships.

Don’t get me wrong – some dreams will have perished last week as competitors realised that they just can’t match the “big players”.

But many more flourished in the shared experience and the camaraderie forged – and the lessons learnt in the heat of battle for a national crown.

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