Golf’s toughest trophy to win? The Havemeyer, of course

This is a replica of the 1895 Havemeyer Trophy, which was originally presented to Bobby Jones for winning the U.S. Amateur in 1924 but was subsequently lost during a clubhouse fire.

Keyur Khamar/US PGA TOUR

Ask casual golf fans to name the hardest golf tournament in the world to win and most would instinctively answer the U.S. Open.

The “toughest test in golf” by all accounts, the U.S. Open marks the one week a year for professionals where par is their friend. Sure, we’ve seen U.S. Opens where the courses were soft and the players were allowed to throw darts with no fear, but for the most part that tournament is as stiff a test as the players face all season.

The PGA Championship and Players Championship might get votes — both boasting strong, deep fields — and if you were talking about simply the hardest tournament to win in terms of getting in, you might say the Masters. But is the correct answer a championship that isn’t even for the professionals? I think so.

Yes, I’m talking about the U.S. Amateur, the toughest tournament to win in the world. Not Augusta National in April, not battling Jordan Spieth and Zach Johnson at St. Andrews or taking on the brutal rough of the U.S. Open. It’s the U.S. Amateur and the absolutely insane format – stroke play qualifying followed by match play — golfers have to navigate for seven straight days if they want to win.

The reasons it’s so difficult to win start piling up before the championship gets going, as it did Monday at Olympia Fields, site of Jim Furyk’s lone major championship back in 2003 and where Walter Hagen won his third of five PGA Championships back in 1925.

The process begins when you qualify for this event, something that almost every amateur must do to be a part of the massive 312-player field that gets the stroke-play event going. Find one of the qualifying sites scattered across the country and play 36 holes of incredible golf just to get in, and if you do that your journey has barely begun.

The U.S. Amateur starts with stroke play, the type of game we all know and love watching the pros play, but the stress is way higher in this event than at a major championship because to make the cut you have to be in the top 64 of 312 players, not the top 70, and ties as the PGA Tour normally requires in much smaller fields.

Your prize for making the cut? A gauntlet of the best amateurs in the world, ages ranging from barely teenagers to 50-year-olds, each one with the talent to end your USGA trip quickly, no matter your ranking.

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Match play goes on for the rest of the week (Wednesday through Sunday on FOX Sports 1 and FOX), with each one putting participants up against someone else playing incredible golf. Anyone can be knocked out at any moment.

It’s the process that makes this so tough. It would be stupid to say the talent pool is anywhere close to that of a PGA Tour major, but the format and the length of the event call for great play and a little luck. Considering match play runs from Wednesday to Sunday, you have to expect that you are due to have a down day at some point in and that you catch someone else struggling just enough that you can slide by.

On top of all of this, the knowledge that an appearance in the finals means you have booked your ticket to Augusta National the next year is as much in the back of these players’ minds as anything.

The craziness of the U.S. Amateur format means players take the survive-and-advance mentality to heart, and it’s the reason plenty of legends of the game never etched their name on the Havemeyer Trophy.

Arnold Palmer is one of those fortunate enough to have won this championship. Jack Nicklaus won the U.S. Amateur twice, and of course we all know the amateur legend Tiger Woods was, winning the tournament an unprecedented three times in a row back in the mid-’90s. It’s worth looking at some of the names of finalists to see just how hard it is to claim this title.

In 1970, at Waverley Country Club, Lanny Wadkins outlasted Tom Kite when the event was still stroke play. In ’78, a few years after the event turned to the more updated format concluding with match play, John Cook was able to hold off Scott Hoch in the finals. The next year, it was Cook who lost to Mark O’Meara, starting a trend of eventual PGA Tour stars battling it out in the finals.

Hal Sutton has claimed victory here, as have Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Matt Kuchar and Ryan Moore, but plenty of names who have dominated professional golf were never able to get through this U.S. Amateur test.

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No Rory, no Jordan, No Jason Day. Rickie Fowler was never a finalist, nor was Bubba Watson. (Interestingly enough, a Bubba has won the U.S. Amateur, but that was Bubba Dickerson back in 2001, and he’s not having quite the career the Bubba we know so well is.)

Vinny Giles, the golf version of the early 1990s Buffalo Bills for a good stretch, finished second three straight years at the U.S. Amateur in the late ’60s before eventually claiming his lone Amateur win in 1972. Manny Zerman was another who made the finals two years in a row starting in 1990, but he unfortunately ran into Phil Mickelson in his first and Mitch Voges a year later, coming so close but never getting to raise the trophy.

So many players have rolled through their side of the bracket only to get to the finals and go down, another of the cruel realities of match play; no matter how good you played the day before, it’s all erased and rebooted on that first tee the next day.

The length and luck involved in winning the U.S. Amateur might be part of the reason a victory here doesn’t always mean professional success. Since 2000, only two U.S. Amateur champions, Ryan Moore and Danny Lee, have gone on to win PGA Tour events while a host of others have had their ups and downs on both the Web.com and PGA Tours (and some have never made so much as a dent past the mini tours).

Imagine if the PGA Championship were still match play, as it was until 1958. It would have a similar feel to this type of tournament, with players hoping to survive whomever they drew in their next match but realizing at any given moment their bright championship hopes could be dashed by someone simply having a better day.

That’s why this championship is not only the toughest to win in golf but the most mentally draining (Q-School used to hold this honor, may it rest in golfing peace). Get to Sunday, outlast whomever made it that far and not only do you get one of the most beautiful trophies in golf, but you get to say that for seven straight days you were the top amateur golfer on the planet.

There’s a reason this championship was considered a major to some for so many years, and it’s the reason that keeping up with it each year is so exciting.

Shane Bacon is a regular contributor to FOXSports.com’s golf coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @shanebacon.