- Associated Press - Friday, July 15, 2011

SANDWICH, ENGLAND (AP) - Even if only partly believable, the Tom Lewis story is a dreamy one: valiant amateur who still lives at home with his parents (mum says he always keeps his room impeccably tidy) upstaging the gnarly, mega-rich Goliaths of golf at the sport’s oldest major.

All the 20-year-old Englishman needed to complete what seemed like a sepia-tinted throwback to golf’s pre-commercial days was a thick tweed suit and a tobacco pipe. Spiffing fun, old chap, wot?

From the outside, Lewis’ unexpected flirtation with the top of the British Open leaderboard seemed like a victory for golf’s little guys, one of those what-if-he-actually-wins-it? scenarios that sets the imagination racing with crazy ideas that, with a dose of luck and a few days off work from a friendly boss, perhaps other talented amateurs could set an Open alight, too, if given the chance.

But where the picture starts to break down is that Lewis is an amateur in name only.

To abide by golf’s detailed rules on amateur status, Lewis is careful to stress that he isn’t paid (not yet, at least) to wear his shirt and cap emblazoned with the names of two well-known golf and men’s apparel companies.

He says that, contrary to media reports, he hasn’t (not yet, at least) signed with sports management giant IMG.

Because he is not allowed to profit financially from his golf (not yet, at least), Lewis won’t get the winner’s check of $1.45 million if his name is engraved Sunday on the claret jug.

But he travels the world to compete (Australian Open in December; Dubai Desert Classic in February) and spends much of his time improving his golf. His dad, Bryan, an ex-European Tour player now working as a golf pro at a driving range north of London, introduced him to the game when he was just a few years old (2 or 3, says his mother, Lynda, she cannot remember exactly). Echoes there of Rory McIlroy, whose dad is a scratch golfer and took the future U.S. Open champion with him to the course before he could even walk.

Lewis‘ father named him after Tom Watson and Jack, his younger brother, after Nicklaus. Their daughter, Stacey, didn’t get a golf name; “that was after a model that my husband fancied,” says Lynda. Curiously, Lewis‘ girlfriend, Lara, is named after Julie Christie’s character in the David Lean classic “Doctor Zhivago.”

Lewis left school at 16. Now, he looks forward to the day when he is able to repay the money his parents poured into his game (Lynda says they’re “mortgaged massive”). Lewis suggests he could turn pro after the Walker Cup in September.

In short, the bag-load of skills and cool head Lewis has sprung on Royal St. George’s shouldn’t be seen as big a shock as it would be if the tiny Faeroe Islands beat five-time world champions Brazil in soccer (it will never happen).

Instead, his story is best understood as another illuminating example of how increasingly younger players arriving with ever-more impressive levels of play beyond their tender years are challenging golf’s established order.

“The state of amateur golf now, the really good ones, they’re not amateurs in the sense of when I was an amateur,” said second-ranked Lee Westwood. “They’ve played professional tournaments and they’ve traveled the world and experienced difficult golf courses. They’re just not amateurs anymore; they’re semiprofessional.”

Unlike tennis, jolted by the burnouts of Jennifer Capriati and others, golf hasn’t felt a need, not yet, at least, for soul-searching about whether youngsters are being pushed too hard to succeed. Instead, the rise of young pros like the 22-year-old McIlroy and Matteo Manassero, who tied for 13th at the 2009 Open as a 16-year-old amateur, is celebrated, especially with No. 1 attraction Tiger Woods increasingly out of the picture. Coming into this week, all four majors were held by players under 30, the first time that’s happened.

The golfing life certainly hasn’t hurt McIlroy, who has stayed grounded, sensible and likable despite his early rush of fame and fortune.

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