SAN FRANCISCO -- To borrow the most famous quote from the University of Michigan's legendary football coach Bo Schembechler, it's all about "the team, the team, the team" at the new U.S. Amateur men's Four-Ball Championship.
It seems the new event run by the United States Golf Association has already surpassed the popularity of the one it replaced on the schedule, the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. The chance to play in the national finals May 2-6 at the Olympic Club motivated 2,234 two-man teams to attempt to qualify, surpassing participation numbers for every other USGA event except the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur. The first women's Four-Ball Championship will be held at Bandon Dunes in Oregon.
Players good enough to compete at the USGA level (it takes a 5.4-handicap index to attempt to qualify for this tournament) can find plenty of places to play individual stroke-play tournaments, but playing as a team is an attractive alternative.
"This could be the most popular amateur tournament in the country -- people could be coming out of the woodwork," NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Players can turn it loose. They feel more free, because they have a partner to back them up."
The four-ball impact
It's not an exaggeration to say the introduction of this new event could have a significant impact at courses around the country.
Most golf fans recognize the format from the Ryder Cup -- where the lowest score of each two-person team (called a side) decides who wins a hole in match play. Only a handful of elite clubs around the country regularly host annual four-ball competitions. Perhaps more public courses will start hosting four-ball events if this takes off in popularity.
All you have to do is look at the wildly successful Drive, Chip & Putt Championship once Augusta National stepped in as the host of the national finals. Now many clubs are adopting lesson programs around getting junior golfers ready for the skills competition, which features qualifying sites around the country.
The prestige of the future sites for the men's Four-Ball national finals -- Winged Foot in New York in 2016, Pinehurst Resort in 2017 and Jupiter Hills Club in south Florida in 2018 -- are certainly a draw.
Previewing the 2015 championship
At the Olympic Club, 128 teams (256 players) will compete in stroke play qualifying rounds on the Lake Course and Ocean Course before moving to match play on the famous Lake for the final three days. A new trophy has been commissioned for the winning side. The quarterfinals, semifinals and final will be televised by Fox Sports 1, May 5-6.
Former UCLA quarterback Drew Olson and his partner David Reneker -- a former walk-on for the UCLA men's golf team -- spoke at media day about what made their partnership click. Olson made an 18-foot birdie putt on the third extra hole at a qualifying site in Sacramento before Reneker followed with a birdie to secure the bid.
"I come from a world of team sports and football," Olson said, "and so to be able to compete in this event and have a partner and a good friend like Dave is something that I am going to cherish."
The Olympic Club's Lake Course is a classic test loaded with demanding doglegs and elevated greens. The 6,981-yard par 70 has several great match-play holes that will test a player's decision making and talent. The 294-yard, par-4 seventh climbs so severely uphill that only the long hitters might hit the green in one. A new forward tee added to the legendary, par-4 18th -- shortening the hole from 343 yards to 270 yards -- could tempt some players to hit driver, bringing the three "IOU" bunkers near the green into play.
Qualifying for the 2016 national finals will begin this summer. Found your partner yet?