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Friday, August 17, 2018

Hammer doing Texas proud witb his run to the U.S. Amateur semifinals

   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.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Hammer pounds out a couple of wins to reach U.S. Amateur quarterfinals

   There are just eight players left standing in the U.S. Amateur after two days and three rounds of drama on the iconic Pebble Beach Golf Links on northern California’s spectacular Monterey Peninsula.
   There was a little bit of everything at Pebble Thursday. Anybody who pays any attention to Division I college golf won’t be surprised in the least to learn that six of the eight survivors into the quarterfinals were playing college golf this spring, two of whom were playing on the final day in the Final Match of the NCAA Championship at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla.
   Still, the most intriguing player left in the bracket might be a guy who is still a few weeks away from taking his first swing as a college golfer, Cole Hammer, the Houston resident who will join the Texas program later this month.
   Hammer teamed up with one of his fellow junior buddies, Garrett Barber, to win the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship in May at Jupiter Hills in Tequesta, Fla. He won the Western Amateur and reached the semifinals in his final appearance as a junior in the U.S. Junior Amateur last month at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J.
   He earned a piece of medalist honors in qualifying for match play earlier this week with a spotless four-birdie, no-bogey, 4-under 68 at Spyglass Hill in the second round.
   Hammer didn’t overwhelm his two opponents Thursday in reaching the quarterfinals. He just beat them and that’s all that matters. He claimed a 1-up win over Joshua McCarthy, a junior at Pepperdine from Danville, Calif., and then knocked off Zach Murray of Australia, 2 and 1.
   “My game has felt great this whole year,” the 18-year-old Hammer, No. 17 in the latest World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR), told the USGA website. “I felt due for something big this summer, kind of got it kick-started with the Four-Ball and then the Western Am. And I feel like I’m still playing that type of golf.”
   Hammer’s opponent in the quarterfinals is the true Cinderella story of this U.S. Amateur. Alex Fitzpatrick is a 19-year-old from England who was 14 when he carried older brother Matthew’s bag when big brother won the 2013 U.S. Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
   Fitzpatrick reached the round of 16 by edging Jesus Montenegro, a talented Argentinian, in 20 holes. It was more of the same in the afternoon as Fitzpatrick birdied the 19th hole to oust McClure Meissner, a sophomore at SMU from San Antonio, Texas.
   The winner of the Hammer-Fitzpatrick match will get the winner of a quarterfinal match between Austin Squires and Viktor Hovland in Saturday’s semifinals.
   Hovland might be the most talented player among the final eight. The Norwegian, a junior at Oklahoma State, is No. 5 in the WAGR. He was the best player on the best team in college golf last season as he played a huge role in a dominating run to an NCAA championship for the Cowboys on their home course at Karsten Creek.
   The 20-year-old Hovland claimed a 2 and 1 victory over Harrison Ott, a sophomore at Vanderbilt from Brookfield, Wis. Thursday morning then had the easiest third-round match of the day when he rolled to a 7 and 6 victory over fellow Norwegian Kristoffer Reitan, Hovland’s high school teammate.
The 21-year-old Squires is carrying the banner for that level of college golf that’s a notch below the Okie States and the Vanderbilts. He is a senior at Cincinnati from Union, Ky.
   Squires pulled off a win over one of those power-conference guys in Thursday morning’s second round, knocking off LSU’s Luis Gagne on the 19th hole. Gagne was the low amateur at this summer’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
   Squires then pulled out a 1-up decision over Andrew Alligood, a senior at North Florida from St. Johns, Fla., to earn his quarterfinal date with Hovland.
   On the top end of the bracket is another player who teed it up opposite Hovland and Oklahoma State in the NCAA Championship’s Final Match.
   Davis Riley, a 21-year-old senior at Alabama from Hattiesburg, Miss. who is No. 24 in the WAGR, cruised to a 5 and 4 victory over New Zealand’s Daniel Hillier, who shared qualifying medalist honors with Hammer, in Thursday morning’s second round before outlasting Mason Overstreet, a junior at Arkansas from Kingfisher, Okla., in 21 holes. Neither player was ever as much as 2-up in that tense battle.
   Riley’s quarterfinal opponent will be 18-year-old Devon Bling, a junior at UCLA from Ridgecrest, Calf. Bling pulled out a 2-up victory over Shintaro Ban, No. 10 in the WAGR who completed an outstanding four-year career at UNLV this spring. He then had to go 20 holes to get past Noah Goodwin, a sophomore at SMU from Corinth, Texas who captured the U.S. Junior Amateur title last summer.
   The winner of the Riley-Bling match will get the winner of a quarterfinal between Isaiah Salinda and Will Gordon in Saturday’s semifinals.
   The 21-year-old Salinda, a senior at Stanford from South San Francisco, Calif., claimed a 5 and 4 victory over Travis Phillips, a junior at Georgia from Inman, S.C., Thursday morning before edging Stewart Hagestad, the winner of the 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at Stonewall from Newport Beach, Calif., 1-up.
   The 22-year-old Gordon, a senior at Vanderbilt from Davidson, N.C., earned a 3 and 2 win over Zhang Kai Bai of China in Thursday morning’s second round before being taken to the final hole in a 2-up victory over William Mouw of Chino, Calif., who will be a welcome addition to the Pepperdine roster in a few weeks.
   Just getting to the quarterfinals of a U.S. Amateur is quite a feat. For eight guys, the dream of winning the most prestigious prize in amateur golf is still alive.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Kraft holds on for a meaningful Pennsylvania Open victory at Lancaster

   Nobody had to explain the significance of his victory Wednesday in the Pennsylvania Golf Association’s 102nd Open Championship, presented by LECOM, to Kevin Kraft.
   The 47-year-old head of instruction at the Bumble Bee Hollow Golf Center in Harrisburg carded a 2-over 72 over the William Flynn design at Lancaster Country Club to hold on for a one-shot victory with a 54-hole total of 6-under 204.
   “This is really big and means a lot to me,” Kraft, who pocketed the top prize of $8,000 out of a professional purse of $40,000, told the PAGA website. “I grew up in Ohio playing in the state Open there, but to win something like this at the state level has been one of my life-long goals.”
   It means a lot because Kraft knows how many great players there are in Pennsylvania, old guys like his playing partner all three days, Stu Ingraham, the head of instruction at the M Golf Range in Newtown Square, and younger guys like runnerup Cole Willcox, a Malvern Prep and Saint Joseph’s product who plays the professional mini-tours.
   Kraft had taken a four-shot lead into the final round after firing a competitive course record of 6-under 64 at Lancaster in Tuesday’s second round.
   By the time Kraft reached the 15th tee, the 58-year-old Ingraham, the Philadelphia Section PGA’s reigning eight-time Robert “Skee” Riegel Senior Player of the Year, had crept within a shot of Kraft’s lead.
   But Kraft calmly hammered a 3-wood into the fairway at the par-4 15th, then muscled a pitching wedge to four-and-a-half feet and made the birdie putt to give him some cushion.
   Turned out it was Willcox, playing ahead of Kraft, who made the biggest move of the day as he birdied five of the last eight holes to match the low round of the day, a 3-under 67, to finish second at 5-under 205.
   Ingraham matched par with a 70 to end up another shot behind Willcox in third at 4-under 206. As Ingraham mentioned when he finished tied for second in the 2015 Pennsylvania Open at Rolling Green Golf Club, this is the time of the year when he wants to be playing well, with the Section’s Senior PGA Professional Championship and PGA Professional Championship and maybe a trip to the PGA Senior PGA Professional Championship coming up on the schedule.
   Former Drexel standout Chris Crawford headed a group of five players tied for fourth at 1-under 209 after a final round of 1-over 71. Crawford, a scholastic standout at Holy Ghost Prep, earned a trip to both the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont and the 2017 National Open at Erin Hills through local and sectional qualifying as an amateur before turning pro.
   Joining Crawford at 209 were Mark Sheftic, the head of instruction at Merion Golf Club who was one of the three players who closed with a 3-under 67, Kyle Wambold, a product of Emmaus and Binghamton who fired a final-round 68, former Penn State standout Travis Howe, who matched par in the final round with a 70, and veteran Butler Country Club head pro Patrick McClellan, who posted his second straight 1-under 69.
   The third 67 carded Wednesday was authored by Daniel Obremski, a scholastic standout at Penn-Trafford who played collegiately at Coastal Carolina and has achieved some success on various mini-tours. The final-round 67 enabled Obremski to finish alone in ninth at even-par 210.
   Three players who shared low-amateur honors were among five players who finished tied for 10th at 1-over 211. The trio of amateurs included Penn State senior J.D. Hughes, the 2017 Pennsylvania Amateur champion from Carlisle, Zachary Barbin, a sophomore at Liberty from the golfing Barbin family of Elkton, Md., and Evan Long, a sophomore at Minnesota, who was a third-place finisher in the 2016 PIAA Class AA Championship as a senior at Laurel.
   Hughes, a part of the last two Penn State teams that have earned invitations to an NCAA regional, had a final-round 74, Barbin carded a 3-over 73 and Long moved up the leaderboard by matching par in the final round with a 70.
   Two pros also ended up at 211, including former Temple standout Patrick Ross, who carded a 2-under 68 in the final round, and another western Pennsylvania veteran, Kevin Shields, the head of instruction at The Club at Nevillewood who finished up with a solid 1-under 69.