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

Monday
Jul302018

Thornberry leads loaded Western Amateur field

Writing from Chicago

Monday, July 30, 2018

Golf’s version of a time machine will be in action Tuesday through Saturday at Sunset Ridge Country Club in Northfield.

It’s the 116th edition of the Western Amateur, the annual scrap for golf glory and honor that opens with a PGA Tour-length stroke play tournament over three days, and then gets serious, with four rounds of match play to determine a champion.

All that takes place in a span of five days. It’s the most demanding format in the game, eight rounds climaxing with three straight days of 36 holes, more or less, for the champion and the runner-up. The struggle means the champion will be fit both mentally and physically. Those who wear out walking the course morning and afternoon will fade between the ears as well.

The list of winners since the Western Amateur went to this format in 1961 is an all-star lineup, starting with Jack Nicklaus, who ran through the field at New Orleans Country Club to capture the George Thorne Trophy and tune up for that year’s Masters at the same time.

These days, many consider the Western Am as a glorified tune-up for the U.S. Amateur, a fortnight hence, but it’s a title of considerable merit – the third-oldest amateur championship behind only the British and the U.S. – and an indicator of who’ll show well in pro golf.

Thus, the time machine analogy. This is the PGA Tour five or six – or fewer – years from now. The lineup this year includes four of the top nine players in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, and 15 of the top 35. That includes world No. 1 Braden Thornberry of Olive Branch, Miss., whose NCAA individual title in 2017 is impressive, and whose fourth-place finish in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Classic in Memphis is even more impressive, No. 3 Collin Morikawa of La Canada Flintridge, Calif. (a Walker Cup member last year), and No. 6 Chandler Phillips of Huntsville, Tex., an all-SEC selection last spring for his play at Texas A&M.

These are not household names now, but neither were Tom Weiskopf, Lanny Wadkins, Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange, Andy North, Hal Sutton or Justin Leonard when they won the Western Amateur – Sutton and Leonard scoring back-to-back victories. They all went on to stellar pro careers and annexed major championships.

So did, for that matter, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, who like Nicklaus were well-known amateurs at the time they scored their Western Am titles.

Last year’s champion, Norman Xiong, and runner-up, Doc Redman, have both turned pro, but four of last year’s quarterfinalists at Skokie Country Club, including ninth-ranked Min Woo Lee of Australia, are back for more. Also in the field are Andy Zhang of China, who won the 2018 SEC title playing for Florida, No. 27 Brad Dalke of Oklahoma, and Isaiah Salinda of South San Francisco, Calif., a Stanford standout who lives around the corner from the Olympic Club, where he won last week’s Pacific Coast Amateur on the Lake Course and rattled the foundation of that grand old club with a course-record 62 along the way.

Local flavor is provided by the presence of Patrick Flavin of Highwood, last year’s Illinois Open and Illinois Amateur winner, who has held off turning pro for a shot at the Western,  Jordan Hahn, the 6-foot-8 standout from Spring Grove who won the Illinois Amateur at Bloomington Country Club two weeks ago, and Charlie Nikitas, the left-hander from Glenview who is always a threat to go low.

Said Flavin, “I played in two Western Juniors and this is going to be my fourth Western Am. I've been around here quite a bit. But yeah, hopefully give myself a chance to make the Sweet Sixteen and get one of those wins. That would be awesome.”

The Sweet Sixteen is the match play field. Just to do that from the 156-player field is an achievement, and a harbinger of things to come. Since the Sweet Sixteen format began, 34 players getting to that stage have gone on to win 82 major championships, the most recent being Masters winner Patrick Reed, who advanced to match play in 2009.

Some Sweet Sixteen fields were incredibly loaded. Say, 1980, when Mark O’Meara, Fred Couples, Corey Pavin, Bob Tway and Sutton all made it and won in the first round, with Sutton knocking off Pavin to get to the semifinals. Or 1974, when Strange had Jerry Pate, Craig Stadler and Jay Haas in the field as well, and needed 20 holes to beat Haas, his Wake Forest teammate, in the title match.

That’s what we’ll see at Sunset Ridge this week. Admission is free, and this year, those who can’t make it in person can see the match-play rounds on streaming TV produced by Thaler Media for the Western Golf Association. Not since 1961, when some of Nicklaus’ exploits were televised locally in New Orleans, has the Western Amateur had live coverage. Click on www.westernamateur.com, www.golfchannel.com, or the Golf Channel mobile app for the live action on Friday (10 a.m.-1 p.m. CT and 3-6 p.m. CT), and Saturday (10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. CT, and beginning 1 p.m. CT for the title match).

“This is a significant step forward for us in showcasing our amateur championship and the world’s top amateurs who annually compete for the coveted title,” said John Kaczkowski, WGA president and CEO. “We’ve watched Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and many more compete in the Western Amateur. Now, golf fans everywhere will be able to watch golf’s future stars face off against one another in golf’s most rigorous test.”

Show up at Sunset Ridge or tune in, and you’ll get an eyeful.

Tim Cronin

Wednesday
Jul182018

Kim romps to Illinois Women's Open victory

Writing from Romeoville, Illinois

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Here’s how Hannah Kim goes about her business: Head down. Ignorant of scoreboards. Talking about everything but golf with her caddie.

Oh, and making a crazy amount of birdies when her game is on, as it was this week at Mistwood Golf Club.

Kim’s 5-under-par 67 in the final round, following rounds of 68 and 65, brought her a six-stroke victory and a scoring record in the 24th Phil Kosin Illinois Women’s Open. The Santa Ana, Calif., total of 16-under-par 200 obliterated the previous record by seven strokes and allowed her to coast to a six-stroke victory over amateur Tristyn Nowlin – who actually surpassed the old mark, held jointly by Annika Welander and Stephanie Miller, about 30 seconds before Kim sank her winning putt.

For Kim, the outcome was not too shabby for someone in her third start as a professional, following the Ohio Open and California Open. Not that Kim had any idea records were falling like autumn leaves, either.

“I was really trying not to look (at the scoreboards),” Kim said. “I was glad my friend Kylie was along. We talked about random stuff, like what’s my favorite food.”

Over the ball, Kim was all business. She plundered Mistwood for 17 birdies in 54 holes, had only one bogey – on the seventh hole in the first round, making her last 47 holes bogey-free – and nearly aced the par-3 17th in the final round, dropping a 7-iron two feet behind the cup from 133 yards. That set up birdie No. 17.

Kim tied for third two years ago and was second last year. Now she’s won, and collected $5,000 from the $25,000 purse for doing so. She’s 26-under-par in nine rounds on a golf course that isn’t easy, unless you play like she did.

Nowlin’s aggregate of 206 would have won every other Illinois Women’s Open, but the Richmond, Ky., resident – entering her senior year on Illinois’ golf team – could only match Kim’s 67 in the final round and thus settled for low amateur honors. She needed a 60 thanks to Kim, who never wandered into Mistwood’s ever-present fescue. Considering everything, Nowlin was cool with her second runner-up playing of the summer at Mistwood. She was also second in the Women’s Western Amateur.

“This was my last tournament of the summer, so it feels good to end it like this,” Nowlin said. “We were just out there having fun. If somebody’s making putts, I’m not going to affect them or left them affect me.”

Sarah Burnham of Maple Grove, Minn., took third, with a 4-under 68 for 6-under 210. Like Kim, Burnham recently turned pro after earning Big Ten player of the year honors at Michigan State.

LPGA veteran Nicole Jeray of Berwyn was fourth following a 1-under 71 for 4-under 212. She made two early birdies, bogeyed the par-3 seventh, and parred in.

Defending champion Alexandra Farnsworth of Nashville, and Vanderbilt University, tied for sixth, scoring 3-over 75 for 1-under 215 despite tendinitis in her right wrist.

Around Mistwood

Bobbi Stricker was a surprise late withdrawal in the morning. That dropped the final field to 29 players. Had she withdrawn on Tuesday, before the final pairings were made, the four players who tied at 8-over 152 would have been tied for 30th, rather then 31st, and made the final round. Instead, pros Allison Finney and Stacey Miller and amateurs Nikki Marquardt and Reena Sulkar were on the outside looking in. ... The final round scoring average was 74.966.

Tim Cronin

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