So, what did last week’s Scottish Amateur Championship at Royal Aberdeen tell us about the state of our game at a time when we are struggling more than ever with players being neither good enough technically nor tough enough mentally to make the transition into the paid ranks?
Taken purely at face value, the fact the event’s first visit to the splendid Balgownie Links since 1980 produced two surprise finalists – Windyhill’s George Duncan and Andrew Burgess from Nairn – suggests that the alarm bells should be ringing in the corridors of Scottish Golf’s headquarters at Drumoig.
Look at the week in the wider picture, though, and also add in Scotland’s recent notable success in retaining the European Team title and there’s undoubtedly cause for optimism that the current crop of leading amateurs can make that switch into the paid ranks more seamlessly than others over the past decade.
Due to other bigger events over the past few weeks, the successful title defence at Chantilly was somewhat overlooked and it is important, surely, that the brilliant combined efforts of Grant Forrest, Craig Howie, Robert MacIntyre, Jamie Savage, Sandy Scott and Connor Syme are factored in before anyone delivers a knee-jerk reaction to last week.
To do well in that event, you need players to perform in both stroke-play and match-play, and for the Scots to have shared top spot with France in the stroke-play qualifying then beaten Spain, Italy and Sweden in the match-play phase to hang on to their crown suggests those involved have more than one string to their bow.
It’s in stroke-play, of course, where they’ll be tested week in, week out in the professional ranks, which is why we shouldn’t read too much into the Scottish Amateur Championship. It, after all, is match-play from the off, though I hear that there’s a strong possibility of it soon falling into line with the English equivalent, whereby it will start with two stroke-play qualifying rounds.
Even before the opening blow had been struck in the Granite City last Monday, the event had an odd look to it due to Forrest and Ewen Ferguson, the 2012 British Boys’ champion from Bearsden, having pulled out, meaning the area in the draw where their names had originally been were left without a seed in the opening few rounds.
Did that contribute to us being left with those two surprise finalists? Probably, yes, and more so perhaps in the case of Duncan, the eventual winner. With all due respect to the likeable 21-year-old, he definitely enjoyed an easier passage to Saturday’s 36-hole title shoot-out than Burgess. The Nairn man had accounted for South African Amateur champion Craig Ross, leading host club hope Mark Halliday and, most notably, Syme on his way to the final.
Though seeing his title bid killed off in the penultimate round, it was Syme’s performance last week that left me driving down the A92 on Saturday night feeling quietly confident that we do, indeed, have young amateurs who are shaping up nicely in preparation for the big switch into the paid ranks.
The 21-year-old won the Australian Amateur Championship earlier in the year, shared top spot in the 36-hole qualifying for the Amateur Championship at Royal Porthcawl in June and was Scotland’s top performer, taking five-and-a-half points from six games, in that European Team triumph in France.
Left as the top seed following the withdrawals of Forrest and Ferguson, Syme hardly put a foot wrong at Royal Aberdeen. Indeed, it was only due to Burgess producing the best golf of his life – the pair shared 13 birdies, the last of which earned the Nairn man victory on the home green – that Syme isn’t the new Scottish champion rather than Duncan because there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the Drumoig man would have come out on top in the final.
Syme has a solid game and a good temperament. What can also work in his favour as he moves forward in his career is that his dad, Stuart, has a good grip on the game. He was a decent player himself as an amateur, returned to his native Fife a couple of years ago to breath new life into the Drumoig Golf Centre and is the current PGA in Scotland captain.
His advice has already been invaluable to young Connor and it will be interesting to see what he has to say about a plan for 2017. On the one hand, you feel he should be trying his luck at the European Tour Qualifying School. On the other, though, would another season playing top-level amateur golf, coupled with getting the same Challenge Tour experience that both Forrest and Ferguson have enjoyed this season, give him an even better chance of succeeding when he eventually does turn pro?