Cole Hammer captures Western Amateur

Writing from Northfield, Illinois

Saturday, August 4, 2018

If Cole Hammer wants to take up another sport, he might consider running the marathon.

If he does, bet on him. Hammer, an 18-year-old perpetual motion machine, played 76 holes in match play on Friday and Saturday, and survived all four matches.

His Western Amateur championship match with Davis Riley at Sunset Ridge Country Club appeared for a time to be a rout. Hammer was 4-up at the turn. Then Riley rallied, cutting the gap to 1-up after his birdie on the par-5 16th, even though he questioned the pin placement.

Riley could get no closer, halving the last two holes to make Hammer the 1-up champion.

Hammer isn’t the youngest to win, nor did he dominate, as two 20-hole wins will attest, but he may have the most complete game at 18 since Tiger Woods. He’s as long as he needs to be, has full and half-wedges at his command, and, most important, rolled in almost every putt he needed to across five days as co-medalist and champion.

“Surreal,” Hammer said. “This is the biggest day in my golf career without question. Nothing even compares. Individually this by far is the biggest tournament I’ve ever won, and to do it here at Sunset Ridge with my mom on the bag, it really means the world.”

Hammer had already been part of the winning team in the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball this spring, but team golf is one thing and doing it yourself is quite another. This one was all his, from his 23-under-par 261 stroke-play total to share the medal to knocking off four straight foes in match play.

“I knew he had game,” said Riley, a 21-year-old entering his senior year at Alabama. “He said he’d admired me since he was 10, and now he just beat me.”

On the first nine, it appeared the feat would be easy. As the mercury climbed to 98 degrees, Riley seemed to be melting away. Hammer won the third hole with a birdie after a wedge to two feet, won the sixth with a birdie after a wedge to a foot, won the seventh with an eagle by draining a cross-green 60-footer, and rolled in a mere 20-footer to win the ninth hole.

“I just kept telling myself I was playing great,” Hammer said.

Four-up at the turn. Riley would have been excused for sneaking into the clubhouse at that point and jumping into a waiting car at the front door, but he saw hope in the middle of the muddle.

“I didn’t really have much doubt,” Riley said of his comeback hopes. “I had faith in what I was doing. I’d played the back as good as anybody all week, so if I stayed patient, I knew I was good enough to make a charge.”

He did. Riley got up and down for par on the par-4 11th while Hammer three-putted from eight feet above the hole, cutting the gap to three holes. Nearly driving the 12th green and chipping to six feet earned him a birdie and second straight hole, narrowing the margin to two holes.

“Me and my caddie were talking all round, we never felt out of it, even 4-down,” Riley said. “After 11, it was ‘Let’s do this.’ I thought the momentum was with me 100 percent.

“I hit some good shots and made some good birdies and gave myself a chance, considering I was 4-down at the turn.”

Hammer called a birdie putt to halve the 13th “a huge momentum putt,” and he used that momentum to win the 14th with a par, but Riley came back with a birdie 2 on the 15th after dropping his tee shot six feet from the cup. It was a two-hole margin again, and only 1-up in Hammer’s favor after Riley’s birdie on No. 16.

That rattled Hammer.

“He buried that 12-footer up the hill and it was not an easy putt,” Hammer said. “I would have been 2-up with two to go. Then he hit a great shot into 17. It was tough to see, but I stepped up and hit a great shot too.”

The match was loaded with great shots, and was clearly tense by the 17th, when short putts that would usually have been conceded were not. Riley had a chance to square the match but couldn’t sink a sliding downhill 10-footer for birdie. Hammer had already missed his 15-foot birdie attempt. Each player made a two-foot knee-knocker to take the match to the last, where both players bounced their flip-wedges off the rock-hard green into the collar, and could only make par. For Hammer, that was enough for the title, the first one he’s won with mom Allison on the bag.

“I’m excited to come back as the defending champion,” Hammer said of 2019, when the Western Am returns to Point O Woods. “It sounds cool.”

Hammer is the sixth Texas Longhorn to win the title, joining Rik Massengale, Ben Crenshaw, Justin Leonard, John Klauk and Beau Hossler. The 76 holes he played in match play tie Leonard (1992) and David Chung (1990) for the most played since the current format began in 1961.

“It’s safe to say I played more golf than anybody this week,” Hammer said. He played 12 more holes than Riley going into the final match. Asked if he wanted to play an emergency nine, Hammer quipped, “Oh my gosh, I’m ready to hit the bed.”

Hammer needed 20 holes to beat Brandon Wu in the morning semifinal, while Riley was a 4 and 2 winner over Tyler Strafaci in the other semifinal.

Hammer was 2-up after 11 holes, but Wu birdied three straight holes to square the match, then rallied again on the 18th by rolling in an 18-footer for birdie after bogeying the par-3 17th.

Hammer won the match with an approach to about four feet on the par-4 second hole after Wu missed the fairway with his tee shot, missed the green with his approach, and was 40 feet from the pin with his third shot. The par-saving putt missed and it was handshake time.

Riley was gunning for his second straight victory in Illinois. He captured the Illini Invitational at Olympia Fields Country Club last year. It’s his fourth Western Am appearance and second Sweet Sixteen appearance, while this was Hammer’s second Western Am and first match-play placing.

Riley couldn’t feel too bad considering how well he played all week. He perked up even more when it was noted that last year’s runner-up, Doc Redman, won the U.S. Amateur a fortnight later.

“That’s a good statistic there,” Riley said.

His next stop? The U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach.

Hammer will be there as well.

Tim Cronin

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