Western Amateur preview: Michael Thorbjornsen defends; J.R. Smith debuts

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For the first time in a decade, the Western Amateur returns to Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park, Illinois.

The historic amateur competition, now in its 120th edition, begins Tuesday with the first round of stroke play. A cut will be made after 36 holes to the low 44 players and ties. Thursday will feature a 36-hole stroke-play day, and after 72 holes, the top 16 players advance to match play, which will take place Friday and Saturday. The semifinals and 18-hole final will be contested on Saturday.

The match-play portion will be streamed live on GolfChannel.com. Here is the viewing schedule:

FRIDAY
11 a.m.-2 p.m. ET: Round of 16
4 p.m.-7 p.m. ET: Quarterfinals

SATURDAY
10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. ET: Semifinals
2 p.m. ET: Final

Here's everything you need to know before the 120th Western Amateur gets underway outside of Chicago:

Thor defends

Defending Western Amateur titles used to be more commonplace. Chick Evans once won four straight, from 1920 to 1923, as part of his record eight Western victories. But not since Justin Leonard in 1993 has a player captured back-to-back titles in this prestigious championship.

Michael Thorbjornsen is hoping to end the recent drought of repeat winners.

The Stanford junior beat Gordon Sargent, 4 and 3, in last year’s Western final at Glen View Club, capping a week that included medalist honors, a course-record 62 and a thrilling semifinal win over North Carolina’s Austin Greaser, who would go on to finish runner-up in the U.S. Amateur at Oakmont.

Thorbjornsen has been quiet on the amateur circuit this summer, as this marks his first individual amateur start since the NCAA Championship. He hasn’t lacked for success, though, as he qualified for the U.S. Open at The Country Club and then finished solo fourth in the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship.

He enters this week ranked fifth in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, and he’ll be paired the first two days with Sargent, the Vanderbilt sophomore who last spring won the NCAA individual title as a freshman, and Greaser.

Red-hot Surratt

While Thorbjornsen is the reigning Western champ, an 18-year-old who hasn't even hit a college golf shot yet may be considered the favorite.

Caleb Surratt, the incoming freshman at the University of Tennessee, is enjoying arguably the hottest summer of any amateur golfer, regardless of age. Surratt has rocketed to No. 19 in the latest WAGR while also taking the lead in the inaugural Elite Amateur Golf Series Cup, a seven-event competition consisting of the summer's top amateur tournaments and culminating with the Western.

The top finishes at the end of the series will receive numerous exemptions, including PGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour invites. Surratt's future college teammate, Bryce Lewis, is the closest challenger to Surratt in this week's field, sitting third in EAGS points.

Surratt boasts top-4 finishes in four of the six EAGS events to date, including a T-2 at the Pac Coast Amateur. He also made the Round of 16 at the North and South Amateur and last week stormed through to the final at the U.S. Junior Amateur, never trailing until the 10th hole of his championship bout against Wenyi Ding, who ended up beating Surratt, 3 and 2.

"I'm learning that my game can travel," Surratt said last Saturday. "I'm just trying to progress every single week, and I feel like I am doing that. I learned lessons that will make me a better player over time."

The only question for Surratt is whether or not his legs can withstand all this golf. The Western is considered the most grueling amateur competition in the world, with, at least for the finalists, 72 holes of stroke play and four matches over five days, and Surratt is coming off not just a long week at Bandon Dunes but also a busy summer.

Other potential contenders

In total, there are 14 of the top 25 players in the WAGR teeing it up at Exmoor.

That includes Sargent and Thorbjornsen, the two highest-ranked players in the field, at Nos. 4 and 5 in the world, respectively. They are followed by No. 6 Dylan Menante, who this summer won the Northeast Amateur for the second straight year and also transferred from Pepperdine to North Carolina, and Menante's new teammate, Greaser, who is No. 8.

Another Tar Heel, No. 14 David Ford, won the Southern Amateur this summer while No. 15 Travis Vick was low amateur at the U.S. Open at The Country Club.

Twelve of the last year's Sweet Sixteen return, including Florida's Ricky Castillo, who is looking to make match play for the fourth straight year.

J.R. makes debut

While being considered one of the majors of amateur golf, the Western has also developed a reputation for occasionally inviting notable athletes from other sports. Past fields have included NBA legend Michael Jordan, former MLB slugger Mark McGwire and retired NFL quarterback turned broadcaster Tony Romo.

This year the tournament committee extended an invite to North Carolina A&T sophomore J.R. Smith. Yes, that J.R. Smith, who won two NBA titles in 16 seasons.

The 35-year-old Smith will be teeing it up in his first official WAGR event. He tees off at 3 p.m. ET Tuesday alongside incoming Texas freshman Keaton Vo, who last week was the stroke-play medalist at the U.S. Junior Amateur, and Andrew Vitt, thee 39-year-old who has won each of the last seven club championships at Exmoor.

It's hardly the featured grouping that Jordan got in 1991, when he played with eventual champion Phil Mickelson, who beat Jordan by 32 shots in the first round.

History lesson

This will mark the fourth time that Exmoor has played host to the Western Amateur after also hosting the championship in 1904, 1952 and 2012.

In 1904, H. Chandler Egan, who had his clubs destroyed a week earlier when the entire south wing of Exmoor’s clubhouse caught fire, medaled before defeating Ned Sawyer, 6 and 5, in the final. The win was one of four in Egan’s career, but it was after this one that Egan was nicknamed, “Wizard of the Links.”

In 1952, Frank Stranahan, five years after tying for second in the Masters, won his fourth and final Western title with a 3-and-2 win over E. Harvie Ward. He drained a 40-foot eagle putt on the first hole of the 36-hole match before going on to beat Ward, who remains the only player to win the U.S. Amateur, British Amateur, Canadian Amateur and NCAA individual title.

The most recent Western at Exmoor was won by Chris Williams. Williams, the world’s top-ranked amateur at the time, took medalist honors and then knocked off Jordan Russell, 1 up, in the final. Williams’ toughest match, however, was his semifinal, which went 19 holes before Williams eliminated Abraham Ancer. Eventual PGA Tour players Justin Thomas, Mac Hughes, C.T. Pan, Zac Blair and Brandon Stone all made the Sweet Sixteen that year.