What amateur tournament had the strongest field in 2008? If you guessed the U.S. Amateur, you were wrong. It was the British Amateur, what the Brits simply call "The Amateur." The U.S. Am ranked a mere second.
Of course, this is a subjective honor and based on a rating system devised by amateur-golf maven Fred Solomon. He created world amateur golf rankings (scratchplayers.org) — a seemingly impossible task. The Royal & Ancient has also devised world amateur rankings (wagr.randa.org), but Solomon’s are more comprehensive, better-weighted and better-presented. At this point, it’s no contest.
Despite the fact that the R&A rankings are not as good as Solomon's, the British Am still ranks No. 1 because it has eliminated the multiple qualifying tournaments in favor of exempting players based on their world ranking. Using the R&A’s amateur rankings, even though they are far from perfect, is a better way to get the best players into the tournament.
The USGA should wake up and consider something similar now that the U.S. Amateur has slipped.
Yes, you have to play your way into a U.S. Amateur, and there is no arguing the fairness of that. The problem comes when 80 players compete in a one-day, 36-hole qualifier for two spots. A tournament may have four top-150 players in the field, but the best players don’t always come out on top. And even if they do, in this example at least, two worthy players still can’t make the field.
There is also one added wild-card factor: Sometimes the quality of the qualifying-tournament courses is lacking and doesn’t help identify the best players. Giving exemptions to players who have proven they are the best over time would improve the quality of the field, and the quality of the tournament. (Full disclosure: My son, Mike Van Sickle, has a 1-for-3 record in U.S. Amateur qualifying.)
A major scheduling headache could also be solved by greatly reducing or eliminating qualifying tournaments for the U.S. Am, Mid-Am, Public Links and Junior Am.
The British Am has greatly upgraded its field since it made the change to rankings-based exemptions, but a scheduling change has also helped -- it no longer conflicts with the NCAA golf championship.
Consider one more oddity revealed by Solomon’s tournament-strength rankings. The winners of the U.S. Public Links Championship and the U.S. Mid-Am Championship get exemptions into the Masters. Based on strength of field, you have to wonder why. The PubLinks ranks 39th, the Mid-Am 61st. The only PubLinks champ to make the cut at Augusta was Ryan Moore, and he also won the U.S. and Western Amateurs that year. No Mid-Am qualifier has ever made a Masters cut. Based on Solomon’s rankings, there are several dozen events with stronger fields that produce better amateur champions than these two.