I mentioned it last week when Kristen Gillman gutted out victories in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur on her way to her putting her name on the Robert Cox Trophy for the second time.
There is a long and established record of success in the crazy game of golf for Texans. Not sure exactly why that is, but it is undeniable. Maybe it’s the way the wind blows in their state that makes Texans learn to play the game in the most difficult conditions.
But there is that innate toughness, too. Some people were gushing last week that Tiger Woods was writing the greatest comeback story in the history of the sport. Sorry, but the Texan who survived a head-on collision with a bus and limped to a U.S. Open victory at Merion in 1950 and three years later won three of the four major championships in the same year, yeah that Ben Hogan guy, that’s the greatest comeback story in the history of the sport. Always will be.
I’m sure Cole Hammer has heard of Hogan, even if not all 18-year-olds are quite as aware of history as they will be as they get a little older. But he shows all the signs of having grown up as a Texas golfer. And well, the last name, you just can’t make that up.
Hammer reached the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur Friday at the iconic Pebble Beach Golf Links on northern California’s Monterey Peninsula with a workmanlike 3 and 2 victory over fellow teen Alex Fitzpatrick, from the country that invented the maddening game, England. It just seems sometimes that somehow the game started deep in the heart of … well, you know.
Hammer is headed for the University of Texas and he gets a chance to get a little headstart on one of the Longhorns’ biggest rivalries in the Big 12 when he takes on Viktor Hovland, a junior on Oklahoma State’s reigning national champions, in Saturday’s semifinals.
Hovland is from Norway, but two years in Stillwater is more than enough time for him to appreciate how the Texas guys play the game. Two years ago when Oklahoma was the national champion, it was Texas that won Big 12 Championship. Last year when Hovland’s Cowboys captured the national championship it was Oklahoma that won the Big 12 title with eight shots separating the Sooners, the Cowboys and the Longhorns with something in the neighborhood of 1,140 shots struck by each team at Southern Hills Country Club.
Hovland, a very deserving No. 5 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, enters the semifinal showdown with Hammer on a major roll. He cruised to a 7 and 6 decision over Austin Squires, a senior at Cincinnati from Union, Ky., It came a day after he dismantled fellow Norwegian Kristoffer Reitan by the same 7 and 6 score.
If Hammer, No. 17 in the WAGR, has any advantage in his match with Hovland, it might be that he’s seen more of the last six holes of the Pebble Beach layout than Hovland has.
Hammer isn’t paying a whole lot of attention to any of this, which is why he has had so much success in match play this summer. His only loss was to Akshay Bhatia, the 16-year-old phenom from Wake Forest, N.C., in a wonderful semifinal match in the U.S. Junior Amateur at Baltusrol Golf Club’s Upper Course. Hammer’s focus has been on what is just ahead of him all summer.
“I’m trying not to think any further down the line,” Hammer told the USGA website. “I try to take each shot, each hole, each match as it comes. You can look ahead and what I might be able to have, but I’m just trying to stay focused on the moment.”
The other half of the bracket will be an all-Pac-12 affair as Devon Bling, a sophomore at UCLA from Ridgecrest, Calif., and Isaiah Salinda, a senior at Stanford from South San Francisco, Calif., advanced to the semifinals with victories over two players from the most powerful circuit, top to bottom, in college golf in the Southeast Conference.
Bling outlasted Davis Riley, a senior at Alabama from Hattiesburg, Miss., 1-up, with a birdie at the last at Pebble Beach. Riley and the Crimson Tide reached the Final Match at the NCAA Championship at Oklahoma State’s home course at the Karsten Creek Golf Club before falling to the Sooners.
Bling and Riley played a wonderful back-and-forth match with neither player ever gaining more than a 1-up advantage. Riley was 1-up until Bling drew even by taking the 16th with a par. Bling never led in the match until he got it up-and-down from the front bunker for a birdie on the picturesque 18th at Pebble Beach.
Riley had a chance to send the match to a 19th hole, but he couldn’t get his 18-foot birdie try to fall.
Salinda took out another tough SEC player in Will Gordon, a senior at Vanderbilt from Davidson, N.C., 2 and 1.
Salinda jumped out to a 4-up lead after five holes, but Gordon battled back, twice cutting his deficit to 1-down. Salinda stopped his approach at the par-4 16th inches from the hole to regain a 2-up advantage and finished off the match with a par on the 17th.
They will be two fascinating semifinal matches, but don’t be surprised if the tough Texan figures out a way to get to Sunday’s final.