Three hundred twelve of the best amateur golfers in the world will compete just outside of Pittsburgh this upcoming week for the 121st U.S. Amateur championship, hosted by Oakmont Country Club and Longue Vue Club in Verona.
Regarded as the top event in worldwide amateur golf, players will have travelled from all over the globe for a chance at glory.
But one contender won’t have to do any traveling at all.
In fact, he will sleep at his own house, in his own bed, each night of the tournament. His name is Palmer Jackson, and he also happens to have a real chance at winning the thing.
A Franklin Regional grad, Jackson comes into the tournament as the prime local standout in his fourth U.S. Am appearance. He earned his spot in the field by winning the qualifying tournament at Sunnehanna Country Club in Greensburg a month ago, joined by fellow western Pennsylvania natives Jimmy Meyers, Mark Goetz, Grant Martens and 2017 U.S. Senior Amateur champ Sean Knapp. (Jason Li, Kevin O’Brien and Matt Vogt made it through out-of-town qualifiers, but all have Pittsburgh roots.)
Jackson came out on fire in the Greensburg qualifier, shooting an opening-round 66 at the course he had contended against elite competition on just a few weeks earlier, in the Sunnehanna Amateur.
He held off the rest of the qualifying field with a 1-over 71 on the second day, in some of the most pressure-packed golf he has ever played.
“You are trying to qualify for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in an amateur in your hometown,” he said. “I think that’s gonna bode really well for us, knowing that we could perform at Sunnehanna under that pressure. It’s gonna be no different here and it’s gonna be even more intense.”
The qualifier was just the last chapter in what has been a breakthrough year for the local star.
After his sophomore season with Notre Dame, Jackson claims the lowest career stroke average in program history at 71.25. He began his summer by winning the R. Jay Sigel Pennsylvania Match play title in June. He followed that up with a fourth place finish at the Sunnehanna Am, and came in second at the Western Pennsylvania Amateur in July.
Clearly, Jackson finds himself in good form right now. But most importantly, experience is on his side. Course experience and tournament experience, that is.
Jackson made a deep run in the 2019 U.S. Amateur, losing in the quarterfinals to current touring pro John Augenstein. A rising Fighting Irish freshman at the time, Jackson posted the best run by a Notre Dame golfer at the tournament in over 79 years. Those three wins in the U.S. Am match play, plus his Sigel victory this summer, have helped cement his confidence in the head-to-head format.
“I’ve always felt very comfortable playing match play, and my match play record is pretty strong,” Jackson said. “I played multiple sports growing up and I think that plays to my advantage. I’ve always been a competitive person.
“Anytime I’m in a head to head battle, whether it’s in golf or when I was a pitcher, I feel like they’re very similar mentalities. You’re going out there to win and that’s all you care about and you just have to find a way.”
As far as course experience goes, nobody in the entire field may have the comfort of Palmer Jackson at Oakmont Country Club.
He’s played in many highly competitive events there, such as the WPIAL championships and the West Penn Amateur. Jackson lost a final-round lead at the West Penn Am a couple of years ago, but relished that experience the most for its similarities to the likely USGA setup this week.
“They tipped it out that day so it was very long, pins were tucked, and you were playing with extreme pressure on you,” he said. “It was pretty unique to have that opportunity to play a course such as Oakmont with that kind of pressure on you.”
Jackson played Oakmont a couple of times this summer, but passed on an invitation there just a couple of weeks ago. He said he didn’t want to over-prepare for a course he knows so well already.
As the preparation ramps up, Jackson will enjoy this experience alongside one of his fellow competitors this week, Notre Dame teammate Davis Chatfield. The pair reached the semifinals together at the U.S. Amateur’s Four-Ball tournament in May.
Notre Dame head coach John Handrigan hasn’t decided if he will attend the tournament this week, but he remains confident in his players in Pittsburgh.
“There’s a strong connection there between the two,” Handrigan said. “They’re helping each other out. Palmer’s giving Davis advice about the courses because Davis hasn’t played them. We’ve got a great culture here at Notre Dame with good character people and they care about one another and want each other to do well.”
In order to reach the match play stretch, Jackson will need a strong performance in the two rounds of stroke play, one at Oakmont and one at Longue Vue. Despite his status as local fan favorite, he’ll have to battle those two rounds alone, as spectators won’t be permitted until Wednesday.
While Oakmont has grabbed the most attention, with its long history hosting U.S. Amateurs and U.S. Opens, Jackson expects Longue View to show its teeth.
“The par 3s are very difficult and the par 5s are as risk-reward as I’ve ever seen,” he said. “You’re gonna see some low scores at Longue Vue, but you’re also gonna see some big numbers because there’s a lot of trouble out there.”
Handrigan has seen significant progress since Jackson first arrived in South Bend. He said Jackson’s already impressed him with his results, so he just wants to see him enjoy this one.
“I know he’s gonna have a lot of friends and family up there watching, and it’s just a memorable moment for him,” Handrigan said. “Sometimes you can get so caught up in the result and the score that you forget about how special of a moment it is.
“I just told him to have fun and enjoy it and I think the scores will speak for themselves.”