PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - Jason Collins and Scott Alphin are standing on the seventh tee box at the Pebble Beach Golf Links .
They aren't armed with golf clubs. Just cell phones. They take turns posing with imaginary clubs, pretending to aim invisible wedges toward the famous green, while the other is snapping photos. In their minds, they're tossing lasers at the pin, just like Viktor Hovland would moments later at the 2018 U.S. Amateur.
The golf two buddies from Charlotte, N.C., are basking in, arguably, the game's most beautiful setting. They can linger as long as they want, once the four quarterfinal matches go through. It's magical moments like these that reveal why the U.S. Amateur is one of the most spectator-friendly tournaments in golf. Not only can you watch the matches of potential future pros. You can explore every cliff, every vista on the course. Normally it costs $525 to get access to see Pebble Beach. Not during the Am. It's only $25.
You can walk in the fairways, following the players like you're their caddie. You're not roped off from the action. You're a part of it. "This is different than being at a (PGA) Tour event," Alphin said. "It's relaxed. You can get up close."
I've been lucky enough to get special media access to a Ryder Cup, a Solheim Cup and a PGA Championship, but this might be the best spectator experience I've had in golf. I've played Pebble a couple times, but the chance to spend hours walking wherever I wanted was almost a spiritual experience. I overheard one fan walking in the eighth fairway say: "I feel like I stole something to be here."
The stars always come out at Pebble Beach. Jack Nicklaus showed up early in the week to watch his son compete. NBC Golf Analyst Johnny Miller and Jim Nantz, a Pebble Beach resident, popped in to soak up the beautiful weather. During Friday's quarterfinal matches, architects Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Dana Fry were prowling the grounds. Jones, who has an office in Palo Alto, said he wanted to see the young guns attack the course. He called it a learning experience.
"The fun is getting close and watching swing patterns and where the ball goes," Jones said. "I just want to watch the players. How am I going to defend par (against modern distance)? If you hit a great shot, the course should yield and if you do not, the course should punish. I'm trying to get in their heads (seeing what they're thinking) without actually doing so."
The next two U.S. Amateurs are in special places in their own right - Pinehurst No. 2 in 2019 and Bandon Dunes in 2020. Every local golf fan should make an effort to attend to support the amateur game and enjoy the intimate vibe. If future U.S. Ams go to some great private clubs, jump on the chance to walk their fairways with the greatest young talents in the world.
"The atmosphere has been awesome to be around," said Stanford Cardinal player Isaiah Salinda, a local favorite who lost in the semifinals.
Better yet, why not play the courses alongside the amateurs? Alphin and Collins competed in the first U.S. Amateur Challenge, a new tournament that coincides with the championship. They loved it.
You won't find Tiger and Phil at the Am, but you might just watch the next Tiger and Phil bomb a few off the tee. Semifinalist Cole Hammer could follow in the footsteps of Jordan Spieth. The two share the same teacher and have talked. Next year, Hammer will attend the University of Texas, Spieth's alma mater. Hammer even compares his own game to Spieth. With a name like that, Hammer is already a fan favorite - similar to Spieth - as evident by the large crowds following him during the quarters.
"This is maybe the biggest crowd I've ever played in front of, except the U.S. Open and maybe the finals of the Western Am," he said. "It was fun to have the fans out there. It felt nice they were behind me. It's great to feel the support."