The Am Guide: Western Amateur Week
The Western Amateur highlights this week in amateur golf, plus the unfolding of the conference realignment
By Jordan Perez
Western Amateur: What’s Derek Hitchner’s secret stuff?
July has brought us two important things: Space Jam 2 and Derek Hitchner’s secret stuff.
The rising senior at Pepperdine admitted that he’s never seen Space Jam. But don’t panic Millennials – like the Tune Squad, Hitchner’s got his own bottle of secret stuff that has given him a July like no other in the amateur game.
He began his surge with dub number one at the Trans-Mississippi Amateur, staging a comeback from 9 shots behind leader Derek Busby and then prevailing in a playoff. A week later, he made another strong late push at the Minnesota State Open to shoot a 5-under 67 in the final round, which got him into a playoff he lost. Hitchner then posted a record score of 15-under to win at the Minnesota Amateur… and somewhere in between, qualified for the U.S. Amateur at Oakmont.
Hitchner says he felt lost after a tough finish at the North & South Amateur, where he failed to advance to match play. He finally found his secret stuff by focusing on swing fundamentals and target orientation and, mostly, his own frame of mind. “I feel like I’ve had a pretty good perspective change recently, where I’ve really just tried to cherish each opportunity I’ve had,” Hitchner says. “I’ve just had the mindset that I have nothing to lose.”
Now comes the biggest stage yet, the 119th Western Amateur, which returns to Glen View Club for the first time in 116 years. This year’s field boasts defending champion Pierceson Coody and other top-ten WAGR threats such as Ricky Castillo, Sam Bennett and 2018 champion Cole Hammer. The 2019 champion and current Mid Amateur champ Garret Rank also returns to the competition. Among the close knit Pepperdine squad, four of Hitchner’s teammates are also in the field, making for a sweet reunion after a busy summer: Joe Highsmith, William Mouw, Joey Vrzich and Dylan Menante.
Hitchner calls them family, noting that there’s still a closeness even in the summertime, when the dynamic shifts from the team to playing for yourself. “I mean, as much as I love my teammates, I want to try to beat them, too,” Hitchner joked. His lighthearted demeanor combined with a restructuring of his swing and mental game should bode well for one of the toughest weeks in golf.
In the company of Waves, there is a…Husky?
The Pepperdine presence at the Western Amateur is undeniable. There is also an ex-Wave who is riding a swell of momentum: R.J. Manke.
Earlier in the month, Manke became the first player in 52 years to become a multiple medalist at the Washington Amateur Championship, with his 7-shot win this year building on a victory in 2018.
Following Pepperdine’s magical national championship season in 2021, Manke entered the transfer portal, looking for a change in scenery for his final year of eligibility. The native Washingtonian headed north to join the Huskies, continuing a legacy of deep familial ties to the university. Described by Washington head coach Alan Murray as “an old head on young shoulders,” Manke is an instant boost to the program.
“He’s an accomplished player across the board,” Murray says. “He doesn’t have any real weaknesses.” Manke’s career at Pepperdine included two individual wins, an individual conference championship and eight top ten finishes (half of them coming last season.)
Though plenty of old, familiar faces are among him in the Western field this week, Husky teammate and roommate Noah Woolsey (who is also enjoying a successful summer) is now serving as Manke’s wingman.
Let’s talk realignment
Oklahoma and Texas are on their way to giving the Big 12 a big, fat kissoff as they seek to exit the conference and join the SEC.
On Monday, the duo jointly released a statement indicating that they would not renew their grants of media rights with the Big 12 following its expiration in 2025: “Both universities will continue to monitor the rapidly evolving athletics landscape as they consider how best to position their athletic programs for the future.”
That’s some real thank u, next energy.
Of course, it’s not as simple as knocking on SEC commissioner Greg Sankey’s door and handing him applications. To join the conference, each team would require the open arms of 11 of the 14 current members of the SEC in a vote scheduled to occur in the “near future.”
PGA Tour player Roberto Castro openly expressed his thoughts on the realignment on Twitter.
“I think it’s impossible to really predict how it plays out, I just know that people are underestimating what the secret sauce of college sports is, which is either an alumni affiliation, or a local regional affiliation,” Castro said, noting the current regional ease of accessibility of sporting events within the conference.
“I just don’t think there’s a lot of appeal to going to play further afield and losing that regional aspect of it.”
You might be thinking, “What does any of this have to do with non-revenue golf?”
Two sport powerhouses joining a hypercompetitive football conference could mean even bigger revenue streams spread throughout the entire athletic department budgets. In conjunction with NIL revenue, which could be plentiful in golf given the robust equipment industry, SEC golfers may suddenly have bigger, richer opportunities.
Initially, the traditionalist in me felt realignment was superfluous. These two teams already stand atop their conferences – what more could they possibly want? But with the emergence of NIL and the rapid evolution of the entire landscape of collegiate sports, I’m suddenly open to disruption. Who doesn’t like a little chaos?
There’s a sense of excitement stirring around Oklahoma golf alumni with the possibilities realignment could bring. Meanwhile, one current Big 12 player joked the shifting landscape, “makes my chances of winning a Big 12 championship easier.”