Herb Page, the long-time golf coach at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, was on the phone. It was Thanksgiving afternoon–in the U.S., anyway–and Page, a Canadian from Markham, Ont. who was inducted in 2012 into the Golf Association of Ontario’s Hall of Fame, was happy to speak about Ryan Yip, the Calgary native he had coached. Yip, 29, had shot seven-under-par 65 on Thursday in the first round of the Emirates Australian Open at the Royal Sydney Golf Club. He was three shots behind first-round leader Adam Scott, the gifted Aussie and current Masters champion.
“How about my man Yipper?” Page asked, rhetorically.
Yip, the 2002 Alberta Amateur winner, a semi-finalist the 2005 U.S. Amateur at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Penn., a Canadian Tour (now PGA Tour Canada) winner, and, all in all, one of those players you expect to show his stuff in the bigger arenas at any time, had done that, at least in one round. His 65 reflected an unblemished card: seven birdies, no bogeys.
Yip couldn’t maintain the pace in Friday’s second round, which he played in difficult conditions. Scott, who went from 62 to 70–still a solid round–said the afternoon at Royal Sydney brought with it a five-club wind at times. Scott, who has won the Australian PGA and Masters this fall, holds a two-shot lead over Rory McIlroy. The two-time major champion shot 65 in the friendlier morning conditions.
I watched the telecast on Golf Channel until about midnight Toronto time. Yip had started his second round on the back nine. He’d gotten off to an ideal start, birdieing the first hole after hitting his approach to about eight feet. He had decent birdie chances in the next two holes, but then bogied the par-five 13th after hitting his second shot into an awkward spot around a tree. He punched out left of the green, short-siding himself, and couldn’t get up and down for par.
When I awoke Friday morning, I saw that Yip had finished with 75 to stand at four-under par 140, eight shots behind Scott and tied for 11th place. He’d bogied the 16th, 17th, and fourth holes, birdied the seventh, and finished with a bogey on the ninth hole. He’ll need to go low on the weekend to have any chance of catching Scott and McIlroy, or others close to them. Their play over the opening rounds has everybody at the tournament salivating over the possibility of their playing together on Sunday and competing head-on for an important title that Jack Nicklaus won six times between 1964 and 1978.
Yip is also playing for a spot in next July’s Open Championship at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club. The top three golfers in the Australian Open not otherwise qualified will win spots into the Open. Yip qualified for this year’s U.S. Open from a first alternate position. He shot 76-77 to miss the cut in his first major.
“He just needs a sense of belief in himself,” his former coach said. Page has been head coach at Kent State since 1978, and knows something about what it takes for talented college golfers to make it as tour golfers. His Kent State player Ben Curtis won the 2003 Open Championship and has followed that up with three PGA Tour wins. Meanwhile, Dundas, Ont.’s Mackenzie Hughes, a former Kent State player, won the 2011 and 2012 Canadian Amateurs. He turned pro and won this year’s Cape Breton Celtic Classic on PGA Tour Canada. Hughes also qualified for the U.S. Open, where he missed the cut. He won PGA Tour Canada’s Order of Merit this year and therefore won full-time playing privileges for the 2014 Web.com Tour.
Page is also coaching Taylor Pendrith and Corey Conners, two top college players, and they’re Canadians. Pendrith, from Richmond Hill, Ont. won the prestigious Porter Cup in Lewiston, N.Y. last summer, and tied for second at the Canadian Amateur at Royal Colwood in Victoria, B.C. Conners, from Listowel, Ont., made it to the semi-finals of the U.S. Amateur and was also second at the Canadian Amateur. They’ll return to Kent State for the 2013-14 season and their senior years. Each player is a member of Team Canada. Here’s a piece I wrote last August after Pendrith won the Porter Cup by five shots.
“We’re on a bit of a roll,” Page said, referring to Hughes, Connors, and other players he’s coaching or has coached, including Yip. As for Yip specifically, Page said, “He came here when he was very young. He was only 17. I told him ‘You’ll get it when you’re 25.’”
Yip has been on the fringes of getting “it.” He’ll turn 29 next month, so he’s a few years behind what Page predicted for him. He still has time. And it must say something about Yip’s potential that he qualified for this year’s U.S. Open and that he posted that superb first round at Royal Sydney.
Is he ready to have a big weekend in the Australian Open? Does he have enough self-belief to play the kind of golf he’s demonstrated at lesser events? Every golfer but the very best faces such questions regularly, and even the very best do at times. Yip is another story in the game, a Canadian’s story, and one worth following.
Note: This is my final piece for The Globe and Mail, where I started my column in 1980. I appreciate your reading my work, whether in print, or, more recently, mostly online.