Friday
Aug032018

Hammer into Western Am semifinals

Flavin ousted in Round of 16

Writing from Northfield, Illinois

Friday, August 3, 2018

“It was a fight,” Cole Hammer said after his 18-hole Western Amateur quarterfinal bout with Spencer Ralston on Friday afternoon at Sunset Ridge Country Club.

Hammer, down two holes with five to play, got off the green canvas of Sunset Ridge’s expertly manicured fairways for a 1 up victory partly via his own game and partly because of a bad break that befell Ralston when he stood 2-up and had belted a drive within 140 yards of the cup on the par-4 14th hole. Hammer was five yards ahead.

Hammer’s drive was on the carpet. Ralston’s sat down in a divot.

“It was an unfortunate break but I still thought I could get a club on it,” Ralston said.

He tried to, but the Georgia junior’s wedge sailed off to the right near a tree, and left him with a bad angle to the green.

“The fairways were getting kinda firm and it came off the hosel a little bit,” Ralston said.

Hammer, conversely, dropped his wedge within eight feet and sank the putt for a birdie, his first of the round, to close within a hole.

“Turning point,” Hammer said, who nonetheless felt for Ralston. “He got so unlucky a couple times today. He tried to get on top of it and it came off the heel a little bit.”

Hammer told his mother and caddie Allison, “Might be an opening,” when he saw Ralston’s ball in the divot. Then he took advantage with the close-in wedge and birdie putt.

“It gave me some momentum,” Hammer said. He would follow up by winning the par-3 15th hole with a par to square the match, take the par-5 16th to go 1-up via a brilliant second shot to about 18 feet for a two-putt birdie, and match Ralston with a bogey on the treacherous par-3 17th and a with par 4 on the 18th, the latter with a baby-soft chip from the rough to within three inches of the cup. Ralston’s bid to square and extend the match, a 12-foot putt, edged the lip on the left side and stayed out.

“I thought it was in,” Ralston said.

Hammer’s 1-up victory advanced him to Saturday’s 8 a.m. semifinal against Brandon Wu, who outlasted John Augenstein in 19 holes. In the other match, it’ll be Tyler Strafaci, the grandson of 1953 Western Amateur medalist Frank Strafaci, against Davis Riley. Strafaci beat Kaiwen Lio, 2 up, while Riley knocked off Hayden Springer 5 and 3.

“We didn’t play great golf for a while, and then, middle of the back nine, we started to play like ourselves,” Hammer said. “The course was firmer and it was windier this afternoon, and the greens were faster, but I think we were a little bit tired after 36 holes yesterday, finishing late, having the dinner that lasted until 9:30 and then getting up this morning. I think that was a little bit of a factor.”

Hammer had gone 2-up with a long two-putt birdie on the par-5 13th, leaving a 60-foot putt 10 feet short but sinking that putt to win the hole after Hammer had driven his tee shot next to the lip of a fairway bunker and had to wedge out.

“I felt didn’t have a whole lot of energy out there on 13,” Hammer said. “Him making birdie sucked some more out of me and I told myself, ‘Man, you cannot do this. You’re still in this. Fight!’ ”

Hammer may be 18, but with a U.S. Open appearance in 2015 and a U.S. Amateur Four-Ball title in his pocket from earlier this year, the Texas-bound teen from Houston has plenty of experience to draw on. And he has the spunky attitude of the former shortstop that he is.

At that point, however, Ralston, a 20-year-old Gainesville, Ga., native, looked and felt in control.

“I was pretty positive there, like, ‘Get on a roll.’ Then I drove it in a divot,” Ralston said. “I think him kind of seeing that before I even hit kinda changed his mindset a little bit.

“It’s a funny game we play.”

It is, but Ralston, whose next stop is the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, enhanced his reputation with excellent play all week.

“It’s one of the best fields in the world in amateur tournaments,” Ralston said. “It kind of proves to yourself you belong. There’s a lot of positives. You can’t hang your head.”

In the morning, Hammer needed 20 holes and scored only even par but advanced to the quarterfinals of the 116th Western Amateur on Friday, beating Davis Shore.

Hammer, the Houston teen who’ll enter Texas later this month, saw Shore square the match with a par on the par-3 17th, but birdied the second extra hole – only his third birdie of the round after 24 in the 72-hole stroke play competition – to advance to Friday afternoon’s quarterfinal match against Ralston.

Ralston knocked off local favorite Patrick Flavin of Highwood 3 and 2 after trailing 2 up at the turn. Ralston strung together four straight birdies beginning at the 10th to take a 1-up lead, then watched Flavin bogey the 14th to take a 2-up edge. Flavin’s three bogeys on the back nine helped seal his fate in his final amateur start. He’ll turn pro for next week’s Illinois Open.

Sam Stevens, whose 51-foot birdie putt Thursday night tied him with Hammer for the stroke-play medal, was run over by 15th-seeded Liu in his match. Liu was 5-under, including the usual concessions, over 14 holes.

The Round of 16 matches:

Cole Hammer d. Davis Shore, 20 holes

Spencer Ralston d. Patrick Flavin, 3 and 2

John Augenstein d. Collin Morikawa, 4 and 2

Brandon Wu d. Kyle Michel, 6 and 5

Kaiwen Liu d. Sam Stevens, 5 and 4

Tyler Strafaci d. Isaac Merry, 1 up

Hayden Springer d. Isaiah Salinda, 2 up

Davis Riley d. Min Woo Lee, 4 and 3

The Quarterfinals:

Hammer d. Ralston, 1 up

Wu d. Augenstein, 19 holes

Strafaci d. Lio, 2 up

Riley d. Springer, 5 and 3

Tim Cronin

Friday
Aug032018

Hammer advances in Western Amateur

Flavin, Stevens bounced in Round of 16 

Writing from Northfield, Illinois

Friday, August 3, 2018

Co-medalist Cole Hammer needed 20 holes and scored only even par but advanced to the quarterfinals of the 116th Western Amateur at Sunset Ridge Country Club on Friday, beating Davis Shore.

Hammer, the Houston teen who’ll enter Texas later this month, saw Shore square the match with a par on the par-3 17th, but birdied the second extra hole – only his third birdie of the round after 24 in the 72-hole stroke play competition – to advance to Friday afternoon’s quarterfinal match against Spencer Ralston of Gainesville, Ga.

Ralston knocked off local favorite Patrick Flavin of Highwood 3 and 2 after trailing 2 up at the turn. Ralston strung together four straight birdies beginning at the 10th to take a 1-up lead, then watched Flavin bogey the 14th to take a 2-up edge. Flavin’s three bogeys on the back nine helped seal his fate in his final amateur start. He’ll turn pro for next week’s Illinois Open.

Sam Stevens, whose 51-foot birdie putt Thursday night tied him with Hammer for the stroke-play medal, was run over by 15th-seeded Kaiwen Liu in his match. Liu was 5-under, including the usual concessions, over 14 holes.

The Round of 16 matches:

Cole Hammer d. Davis Shore, 20 holes

Spencer Ralston d. Patrick Flavin, 3 & 2

John Augenstein d. Collin Morikawa, 4 and 2

Brandon Wu d. Kyle Michel, 6 and 5

Kaiwen Liu d. Sam Stevens, 5 and 4

Tyler Strafaci d. Isaac Merry, 1 up

Hayden Springer d. Isaiah Salinda, 2 up

Davis Riley d. Min Woo Lee, 4 and 3

The Quarterfinal matchups:

Cole Hammer vs. Spencer Ralston

John Augenstein vs. Brandon Wu

Kaiwen Lio vs. Tyler Strafaci

Hayden Springer vs. Davis Riley

Tim Cronin

Thursday
Aug022018

Hammer, Stevens share Western Amateur medal honors

Flavin advances; match-play begins Friday

Writing from Northfield (a.k.a. Birdieville), Illinois

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Here is how you shoot a 61 at Sunset Ridge Country Club: miss your six-foot sliding downhill putt for birdie at the last.

It could have been a 60, the round Cole Hammer punched out on Thursday morning. At 61, 10 under the usually-testing par of 71 for the layout, it was a course record by a stroke anyway and a career low for the Houston, Tex., teen by two strokes.

He’ll call Austin home within a month, when he starts his freshman year at Texas, and might carry a big trophy into the dorm. Hammer birdied 10 of the 18 holes to erase the course’s old mark of 62 and vault into the mid-day lead in the 116th Western Amateur. His total to that point, 19-under-par 194, earned him a two-stroke lead on the field.

By day’s end, Hammer had battered Sunset Ridge four times for 261 strokes, 23-under. That lofty standard, four strokes better than any previous Western Amateur medalist, was his alone for about 15 minutes, until Sam Stevens, just graduated from Oklahoma State, poured in a 51-foot putt from the front of the 18th green for a closing 65 and matching 261.

Perspective: That’s 10 strokes under the mark set by Jim Jamieson in the 1972 Western Open, a cold weekend in the era of persimmon and balata. In other words, when dinosaurs ruled the earth.

Thirteen of the 16 match-play qualifiers – this carnival is only half-over – scored 270 or lower, including Davis Riley, a Mississippi lad who four-putted the last and still made the Sweet Sixteen with three strokes to spare. A high qualifying score score of 11-under 273, a record by three strokes, forced six players into sudden-death for the last spot, won by Davis Shore on the third extra hole with a birdie 3.

The man-to-man battles begin Friday morning among the 16 match-play qualifiers. Expect birdies and eagles.

“I missed a 10-foot uphiller on the first hole this morning, and it was kind of off to the races from there,” Hammer said. “Then I made five birdies in six holes and just kept it going on the back.”

His afternoon 4-under 67 seemed ho-hum compared to the morning, except he birdied four of the last six holes to get there.

Hammer’s a player to conjure with, and not just because he beat the old record. His swing coach is Cameron McCormick – the same guy Jordan Spieth uses – and he played in the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay as a 15-year-old, where Spieth won. Their practice round there together helped pave the way to Hammer’s becoming a Longhorn.

Not even Spieth made such a splash as Hammer has before college, his performance at 

Sunset Ridge being the latest example.

Stevens was two groups behind Hammer and saw the scoreboards going tilt.

“I was kind of keeping an eye on the leaderboards this afternoon to see what he was doing,” Stevens said. “I saw he was at 21-under with three holes to go, and I was at 21 and made a birdie (on No. 16) and thought I had a pretty good chance to at least tie. Then I got to the 18th green and saw he made two more birdies (for 23-under).”

Stevens called the tying birdie putt a 60-footer.

“I was trying to make it, but I was really just trying to two-putt,” Stevens said. “Finish second at worst. But I hit it a little too hard and it broke right in there. I got away with a few things, had a couple nice bounces and took advantage of the breaks I got.”

Hammer’s made 24 birdies and an eagle, against three bogeys – one in the last 44 holes – and is 16-under in his last 40 holes. Stevens has made 27 birdies and five bogeys. Both have shot 31 on the back nine.

Patrick Flavin, meanwhile, went about his business in stylishly workmanlike fashion, putting up his third straight 67 in the morning round and adding a 66 in the afternoon to easily qualify for the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in four Western Amateur starts.

Perfect timing, as the Miami (Ohio) graduate from Highwood, the lone Illinois player left, is turning pro for next week’s Illinois Open. As the defending champion, he would have made $15,250. This year? “I want the check,” Flavin said.

Flavin missed the cut in defending his Illinois Amateur title in Bloomington, and that taught him something.

“I was having trouble hitting the fairway off the tee,” Flavin said. “This week, I haven’t missed many fairways at all and I’ve been hitting a ton of drivers. There’s definitely a big mental aspect to it. If you’re hitting the ball right and left, it’s hard to step up and make a confident swing. When I missed the cut, I decided if I’m going to miss, I’m going to miss swinging aggressive. I didn’t putt very well (at the Illinois Amateur), but this week I’ve made maybe 100 feet of putts every round, maybe more.

“I’ve learned a ton from last summer,” Flavin said. I had an awesome run and won six of eight tournaments. This year, I’ve been battling my swing. It was tough, but really important for me to battle both ends of the spectrum as I turn pro. I felt I handled the winning very well and did my best at handling the not-winning very well. To come out here when it matters in the biggest amateur tournament means a ton.”

Friday’s Round of 16 matches start at 8 a.m., the afternoon quarterfinals start at about 1 p.m.

Tim Cronin

Wednesday
Aug012018

Ralston sole leader in Western Amateur

Writing from Northfield, Illinois

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Fairways and greens, goes the old saying.

Unless you’re playing in the 116th Western Amateur at Sunset Ridge Country Club. There, even with reasonably thick rough, foul balls are in play. Fairways have become optional.

Exhibit A for that theory is one Spencer Ralston, a Gainesville, Ga., lad who calls reporters “sir” and hit the ball into the stratosphere, usually straight.

Wednesday was different. Sunset Ridge, a leafy outpost that dates to 1923, has 14 fairways, but Ralston managed to hit only one, and still moseyed his way to a 5-under-par 66 for 13-under 129 and the lead in the halfway point of the first stage of this marathon.

“That (hitting fairways) was what I needed to do, but the putter’s been really good,” Ralston said. “I’m confident with it right now. It’s kind of a mental approach. I’m not stressing on myself if I don’t hit a fairway.”

Ralston noted the old-school design of Bill Diddel, where in most every par-4 allows an errant player to punch out from under trees and run a shot onto the green. That saved Ralston time and again, not that someone with eight birdies on his card (including five on his outward nine, Sunset Ridge’s back nine), needs much saving. It was the middle of his round that got him, when he moved to the front nine and bogeyed the first hole followed by a double-bogey on No. 3. But three birdies in succession starting at No. 6 – sinking a curling eight-footer for a birdie there – righted the course.

“I think that was good to end the day on,” Ralston said of the final push.

The Georgia Bulldog had opened with an 8-under 63 on Tuesday, as did Matthew Walker and Lloyd Jefferson Go, both of whom who fell back in the second round.

Ralston, whose back-to-back back nines add up to 61 strokes, is being pursued by a California Golden Bear in the person of Collin Morikawa, who added an 8-under 63, the day’s best round, and sits at 11-under 131, two back and solo second.

“This is such a long week, and it’s all about survival,” Morikawa said of his bogey-free 63. “I’ve got the first two days done.”

Next come the duo of Isaiah Salinda, perhaps the hottest player in the field given the 62 he posted at the Olympia Club last week en route to winning the Pacific Coast Amateur, a premier regional showcase, and John Augenstein of Owensboro, Ky. They’re at 10-under 132.

For everyone advancing to Thursday, the grind really begins: a 36-hole stroke play shootout to determine the Sweet Sixteen for match play.

“Just eat well and make sure I’m hydrated and stuff,” Ralston said. “It’s not as humid here as it is in Georgia, where I play all the time. I don’t mind playing a little more golf here. It’s just a grind all week.”

Patrick Flavin, who is making the Western Am his amateur swan song – there’s money to make next week in the Illinois Open – duplicated his opening 67 to stand at 8-under 134 going into Thursday’s double-round battle. The highlight of his day was an eagle 2 on the par-4 first thanks to sinking a 116-yard approach with a pitching wedge.

“I played really solid all day, made a lot of putts for par, gave myself a lot of birdie looks,” Flavin said. “If I keep doing that, I’ll be around all week. For me, it’s about having fun. Thinking about making the cut is a distraction.”

World No. 1 amateur Braden Thornberry, who put Olive Branch, Miss., on the map, climbed into the final 36 with a 5-under 66. Added to his opening 71, it placed him at 5-under 137. At one point, it appeared he had a stroke to spare to make the cut, but a late spate of good scores after a 66-minute thunderstorm delay moved the cut to exactly 137, encompassing exactly 44 players, and breaking the old 36-hole mark by four strokes.

Those headed down the road include Illinois Amateur winner Jordan Hahn of Spring Grove (68-74–142), Glenview lefty Charlie Nikitas (69-71–140), and Marquette standout Matt Merlick of Winnetka (74-69–143). CBS broadcaster Tony Romo, the erstwhile Eastern Illinois Panther and Dallas Cowboy, stumbled to a 78 and finished at 10-over 152, in a tie for 145th in the field of 156.

At 6,823 yards, this is the shortest course used for the Western Amateur since Wichita Country Club in 1970. Tom Kite was medalist there at 11-under 273, while Lanny Wadkins won the championship. The 36-hole cut at Wichita was 148.

Tim Cronin

Tuesday
Jul312018

Three share Western Amateur lead

Writing from Northfield, Illinois

Tuesday, July 31, 2018 

While there are only three par-5s on Sunset Ridge Country Club’s course, they’re all reachable for today’s mammoth hitters, even though two are at least 555 yards in reach.

Lloyd Jefferson Go, Spencer Ralston and Matthew Walker took advantage of that on Tuesday, overpowering the course with matching 8-under-par 63s, one stroke off the course record, to share the first-round lead in the 116th Western Amateur.

Go, a two-time Big East player of the year during his stay at Seton Hall, scattered six birdies and an eagle over his card in the morning, with the eagle and a pair of birds on the par-5s.

Ralston, a junior at Georgia, suffered a bogey, but made up for it with two eagles and five birdies.

Walker, a senior at Iowa from Ottumwa, shared fifth in the Monroe Invitational and tied for sixth in the Kepler Intercollegiate earlier this year. That’s good but not great. Great was his eight-birdie outburst late in the afternoon.

Those fireworks earned the trio only a one-stroke advantage on the quartet of Chandler Phillips, Fernando Barco, Shaui Ming Wong and John Augenstein, each of whom carded 7-under 64s on a day when nearly half the field was under par and dozens more, including world No. 1 amateur Braden Thornberry, matched the par of 71 on a course designed by Bill Diddel in 1923, and, at 6,823 yards, not much longer now than the day it opened.

Go’s eagle came at the 518-yard 13th hole, where he cut the corner of the dogleg, hammered an approach on and sank the putt to go 6-under for the round. Birdies on the 15th and 16th holes moved him to 8-under, and he parred in, saving par at the 17th and two-putting from the back fringe at the last.

There are a lot of opportunities out here, especially if you drive it in the fairway,” said Go, who hails from Cebu, Phillippines.

Ralston, the first standout player in the afternoon, estimated he hit 10 fairways. He knew he hit the short grass on the seventh and 16th holes, the site of his eagles. He played the front nine in 2-under 33, but scorched the back nine in 6-under 30, with nine threes on his card overall, plus a deuce at the par-3 17th following a 15-footer for the eagle on No. 16.

“My putting got hot – just hit the ball in the fairway, and a hot putter can make up for a lot,” Ralston said. “The rough’s thick, but it’s an older golf course. If you hit it barely right, you may be in trouble, but if you hit it way right, you’re in another fairway, so just hit it over the trees. It depends on the break you get.”

Walker went without an eagle but piled up eight birdies and 10 threes in his bogey-free round to storm into a share of the lead, with a 4-under 32 on the back, his first nine and a 4-under 31 on the front, to match his best career round.

Patrick Flavin of Riverwoods and Jordan Hahn of Spring Grove, the last two Illinois Amateur winners, scored 4-under 67 and 3-under 68, respectively, with Flavin making four straight birdies before a bogey at the last. Similar rounds on Wednesday should advance them to the final 36 holes of stroke play on Thursday, which is limited to the low 44 players and ties from the field of 156. Thursday night comes the cut to the Sweet Sixteen for the commencement of match play on Friday morning.

The Western Am is the first big tournament at Sunset Ridge since the 1972 Western Open, when Jim Jamieson won with a total of 13-under-par 271. The low rounds for the week were a pair of 65s, by Tommy Aaron and Labron Harris Jr. The week’s scoring average of 73.665 was in line with other pro tournaments in the era of persimmon and balata. That era is long gone.

Tim Cronin

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