At halftime of the U.S. Open, long-hitting amateur Cameron Champ is living up to his name

June 16, 2017

ERIN, Wis. – He just sounds like a winner, right?

Meet Cameron Champ, the young man bestowed with the greatest name in the field, if not golf history. He’s gearing up for his senior year on the Texas A&M University golf team, and on summer break he decided to take a stab at qualifying for his first-ever U.S. Open. Now here he is. On Thursday he celebrated his 22nd birthday at Erin Hills. On Friday he completed his second round. How’s that working out?

He’s five under, thick in the hunt. Oh, and he’s leading the field in driving distance.

That’s right: Champ is hitting it past Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. He’s also whipping each of them on the leader board. It’s been a remarkable performance, but the story doesn’t feel like a fluke. It feels like the birth of a future star.

On Friday Champ fired a three-under 69, bolstered by four birdies over his final seven holes. On the 676-yard 18th, he went for the green in two and came up just short. (So don’t expect anyone to reach that green today.) He flubbed the chip and had 13 feet left for birdie. When that putt curled around the lip and dropped, Champ pumped his fist.

“I thought it would break less, and I just took more, and it still almost didn’t go in. I’m still in shock,” he said.

This Open is the biggest, baddest and swankiest experience he’s ever had in golf. He was still a little dazed while standing in the outdoor interview area moments after his round.

“I mean, just look at it,” he said. “The hospitality, the way the players are treated, the course you play, obviously the fans and the quality of players. It’s the best quality field. This doesn’t compare to anything I’ve ever played in at all.”

He sounds like an awestruck college kid, but his game is pro-ready. On Monday he played a practice round with McIlroy and Louis Oosthuizen and bombed it past both of them. He’s averaging 339 yards per drive at Erin Hills, a spectacle that is turning heads (and snapping necks). Along the ropes on Friday, Champ’s college coach. J.T. Higgins, beamed at the show unfolding in front of him.

“In terms of talent, he’s near the top,” said Higgins, who has mentored more than 20 players on pro tours. “When we recruited him, the first thing that drew us to him was that he was longer than everyone else. He doesn’t swing hard. A lot of what he has, you can’t teach.”

Fans around Erin Hills and an international media are indeed noticing a powerful golfer packed into a 6-foot frame that’s neither bulky nor lithe. Dig deeper and they’ll also find a humble young man.

“He’s a good-hearted kid. Soft-spoken. He’s solid,” Higgins said.

Champ battled a back injury early in his college career, but last season he was healthy, put in a full schedule and won a couple collegiate tournaments. The last amateur to win a U.S. Open was John Goodman in 1933, so the odds of Champ writing a Hollywood ending this week are remote. Regardless of what happens this weekend, Champ has no plans to try a pro career until after he earns his degree.

“Last year was my first full year of college golf out of the whole time I’ve been here,” he said. “I still have about 14 hours left for my senior year, so it will be a stress-free senior year. [I’ll] just play some golf and afterwards decide.”

There’s a lot already working in his favor, and that’s where it gets tempting to jump several steps ahead to analyze how eerily Champ’s life lines up with that of a certain 14-time major winner.

Champ comes from a working class family. His dad is black, his mom is white, and he’s tight with his pops. He hits it a mile. He’s fit. He has been working with Sean Foley for about six years. He’s decked out head-to-toe in the Nike swoosh and has a name that is made for Madison Avenue. You can see where this all could quickly lead, but Champ is far too humble to compare himself to the world’s most famous golfer. Heck, he barely saw the guy play.

“I was too young to see him at his best, but everyone looks up to Tiger,” Champ said.

If Champ can keep posting low numbers through the weekend at Erin Hills, there may also be a few fans looking up to him.

Champ or not.