The U.S. Senior Amateur, A Ryder Cup Prediction and More in This Week’s Van Cynical Mailbag

Gary Van Sickle plays the U.S. Senior Amateur.
USGA/Chris Keane

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — There was a lady pushing a stroller with a dog in it around the posh Newport Beach Marriott lobby and later, in the concierge lounge.

California is a place where anything can happen. Dogs ride in strollers. The locker-room attendant at Big Canyon CC is Bobby Orr — no, not that Bobby Orr. Even a golf writer can make it to match play in the U.S. Senior Amateur Championship and knock off the tournament’s No. 2-seeded player.

Well, almost anything. I won the first hole of my first-round match against Tim Jackson, a two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, and that seemingly insurmountable lead didn’t hold. Jackson didn’t play his best, I’m sure he’d tell you, but he played well enough to beat me. His B game is better than my B game and he broke open a tight match — I was 1 down through 13 holes — when I bogeyed the 14th and 15th holes to go dormie, 3 down with three to play. I didn’t birdie the par-5 16th so I lost, 3 and 2.

That all took place on a sizzling afternoon following an unusual morning playoff. To finalize which 64 players advanced to match play after 36 holes of stroke play, I was involved in a 15-for-13 playoff Monday morning. We went off in three fivesomes, most of us in separate carts, and I was in the final group, along with Jim Lehman, Tom’s brother.

There was a birdie, some pars and a double bogey on our first hole, the par-4 10th. So the guys who made birdies and pars were in, the double bogey was out. That left only we bogey-makers — now nine players for eight spots at the 11th hole. A guy in the group ahead hit his drive out of bounds and made triple. That took the pressure off the rest of us. All the guys in my group who hit the fairway played short and right of the green to avoid a gargantuan deep bunker and make sure they didn’t make 7.

I bogeyed both holes — come to think of it, I bogeyed the 10th hole all four times I played it this week — and was seeded 63rd, which was how I got stuck facing Mr. Jackson.

As we left the 10th tee, a mildly chaotic scene, I told one USGA official in a cart, “You can tell this is Los Angeles. The traffic is brutal even on the cart paths.” He laughed and agreed.

The playoff was done by 8:45 and my match with Jackson was set for 1:15. So I went back to the fabulous Marriott and did breakfast a second time in the concierge lounge, putting a serious dent in their Fruit Loops supply.

I came back at 12:15, putted for a while, then hit some pitch shots on the chipping green and finally went to the range and hit balls. As usual, they put a placard with my name on it by my spot on the range, just like a lot of PGA Tour events do. Since I was just about the last player to arrive to hit balls, they saw me coming and already had my “Van Sickle” sign ready.

The USGA takes the tournament experience very seriously and made this a national championship everyone could enjoy. Factor in the luxury of Big Canyon CC, where I’m told the clubhouse cost $65 million to construct, and the friendly staffers who were eager to help, it was an all-world week for the participants. We were treated like PGA Tour players. Big Canyon wasn’t five minutes from the Marriott and the USGA provided a shuttle. In between the course and the hotel was Fashion Island, a high-end shopping and restaurant enclave.

It was one sweet week.

Now back to the reality of the Van Cynical Mailbag:

Van Cynical, Who wins the Ryder Cup? — Klaugh56 via Twitter

Europe. America’s two hottest players, Horschel and Chris Kirk, aren’t on the squad. And Hunter Mahan, Zach Johnson and Jordan Spieth are off form. Not to mention Mickelson. I think it’ll be another very close Ryder Cup. The Euros look much stronger on paper at the top but the Americans are better in the middle and at the bottom. One shot could decide it all. And it’ll probably be another long putt by Justin Rose.

Van Cynical, Nice playing at the Senior Am. Only a one-year sponsorship for the Match Play? Why such a tough sell? It’s the best non-major in my view. — Jeff via Twitter

Agreed, match play is the most fun format to watch in televised golf. Each hole has a conclusion, either win, lose or draw, and that makes every shot far more compelling than plain old stroke play. Why such a tough sell? Golf isn’t exactly knocking ‘em dead these days in the entertainment world and the Tour’s asking price to be a WGC sponsor is probably in the $10 million neighborhood. That’s a thinly populated neighborhood in the business world these days. Tiger’s wins and his Match Play losses — two to Nick O’Hern, of all people — rank among his most memorable moments.

Van Sickle, Will your Senior Am experience change anything about how you write about the game? — Tippet523 via Twitter

Probably not, Tippy Cup. I’ve been here before and done this, sort of. This was my second Senior Am but my first time getting to match play. I have played my share of USGA qualifiers and once survived a six-man playoff (that included pro Michael Allen) to advance to sectional U.S. Open qualifying, where I played with Larry Mize and Tom Purtzer and just missed getting into the Open by a scant 17 strokes. The men and women who capture amateur championships are remarkably good players, way better than me, and I’ve always marveled at how good they are.

Sickle, How can a guy who has won more majors and Tour events than anyone else this year not win the FedEx Cup? And, sorry you lost your match. — Jarod Hitchcock via Twitter

How does a wild-card team make the Super Bowl, Hitch? Yes, Rory McIlroy won two majors, but Billy Horschel won two of the four FedEx Cup events. I wouldn’t call these true playoffs, since Dustin Johnson was able to advance to the final round even though he didn’t play. But in other sports’ playoffs, it’s not what you did in the regular season that counts, it’s what you did yesterday. Rory has the Player of the Year locked up, Horschel has the $10 mil.

Vans and J Rod, It’s simple. There are the playoffs. Majors and other wins get you a high seed but not a guaranteed FedEx Cup. — Blair Neal via Twitter

Well said, Blair Witch Project. You said what I said in five fewer lines. You could be just the assistant I’m looking for, provided you’re willing to work for nothing and/or actually pay me.

Sickle cell, How did your cumulative-scoring system for the FedEx Cup work out? — DougieDoug via email

Technically, Jim Furyk would’ve won with a four-event total of 34 under par, two ahead of Rory and four ahead of Rickie Fowler. But clearly Horschel would’ve won it easily if he hadn’t missed the cut at Barclays. He was 48 under par for the last three FedEx Cup events. He could’ve played the Barclays at 13 over and still edged Furyk. There’s no way to fairly account for missed cuts in my system, but thanks for asking.

Vans, Tough draw, good match. Well bowled by the Steely Ex-Cheeseman. Gillooly get delayed on the set? — Jhaines via Twitter

That’s right, Long John, my plot to take out Tim Jackson at the Senior Am by employing Jeff Gillooly as caddie never materialized. Also, throwing one birdie at him in 16 holes didn’t seem to faze him, either.

Vans, You are starting a band with Tour players. Lead guitar, rhythm, bass, drums, keys, vocals. Who you got? — Brian Bailey via Twitter

No idea. I do know the greatest band in golf history is Jake Trout and the Flounders. Peter Jacobsen was the front man and his knack for imitation allowed him to knock out some good vocals on the Flounders’ two recordings. He had Mark Lye on guitar and Payne Stewart on harmonica and backup vocals, but after Payne’s passing, they hung up their strings. They also filled in with a bunch of real pro rock players, too, and nothing personal, Bruce Hornsby, but the Flounders take-off of “Defenders of the Flag” (retitled “Attackers of the Flag”) out-rocked the original, in my humble opinion.

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