Monday, July 29, 2013

Dramatic finish at 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship

With the 18th hole and the clubhouse of the Martis Camp Club in Truckee, CA, in the background,Scottie Scheffler, of Dallas, Texas, hoists the U.S. Junior Amateur Trophy after staging a dramatic comeback in the championship match to claim victory

Recreational golf is a leisurely activity – a little too leisurely, the way some people play it – but competitive golf has an inherent intensity which the calm exterior aspect of the game belies, and nowhere is that more aptly demonstrated than in the USGA’s national championship tournaments. Two national championships were contested this past week, July 22 to 27 – the U.S. Junior Amateur at Martis Camp Club, in Truckee, and the U.S. Girls Junior, at Sycamore Hills Golf Club, in Fort Wayne, Indiana – and the action in the championship match in the Junior Amateur provided an apt demonstration of the level of intensity that accompanies a national championship.

The players in the final match at a USGA national championship tournament will have played nine 18-hole rounds of competitive golf in six days by the time all is said and done, and seven of those rounds are intense, one-on-one match play. It is a measure of the caliber of the competition that the 36-hole championship matches play out so close, often coming down to the last few holes before a winner is decided.

Two accomplished junior golfers played their way through the selection process to face off in the championship match at the Junior Amateur: Scottie Scheffler, of Dallas, Texas, 3rd seed after stroke play, and Davis Riley, of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who was T-4 at the conclusion of stroke play.

After playing 36 holes of stroke play and five rounds of match play, the two finalists were faced with 36 holes of match play, in a single day, to determine the 2013 national champion.
The young Mississippian, Riley, took the lead on the first hole with a par to Scheffler’s double-bogey, and appeared set to hold onto it until the finish. By the time the match got to the seventh hole Riley had built his lead to three holes with steady pars. Scheffler turned the tide briefly at Holes 7 and 8, making his own pars while Riley slipped back to 1-up with a pair of bogeys.

Riley led Scheffler for the remainder of the first round, moving back and forth between 1-up and 2-up a time or two, but never relinquishing the lead.

Starting the second eighteen after the lunch break, the two players came out of the blocks pretty evenly matched, each posting pars for the first four holes. Scheffler, 17, who is playing in his last Junior Amateur before he ages out of eligibilty, squared the match with a chip-in birdie on the fifth hole, a 486-yard par-4, but went 1-down again at the sixth, another par-4, with a bogey. Riley, who has verbally committed to Alabama for his college golf, held onto the lead for a further seven holes, then a small error on his part – which may have resulted from a subtle, but shrewd, tactical move by Scheffler, turned the momentum of the match in his opponent’s favor.

Both players carried their approaches at the 31st hole of the match hole high and just slightly off the back of the green, but in good position to get to the back-right hole location. Scheffler, who was away, chipped to tap-in range and was given the putt. Riley, who was closer to the flag but with a marginally less-favorable lie, chipped to a decent position below the flag, but about half-again the distance from the hole that Scheffler’s ball had been. The ball was marginally within concession range, but Scheffler made no move to concede the putt, and Riley, possibly taken aback slightly by this, pushed the putt, lipping out for a bogey-5, giving up the lead for only the second time in the match.

“Yeah it was [a momentum swing],” Riley said about the missed par putt on the 13th hole. “I felt like I still could have won [the match]. I was playing really well, my ball-striking was really good.”

At the 32nd hole, the 159-yard par-three 14th, Scheffler’s tee shot landed just right of and below the flag, bouncing forward and rolling to the collar of the green, pin high. It was a bold shot, attacking a flag which was was tucked well back and right, and a risk that could have backfired on him.

Teeing off next, Riley fired a shot which was also on the flag like a laser, but stopped several feet short, the victim of geometry. It hit the slight upslope below the hole, which killed its forward momentum and prevented it from releasing toward the hole.

Watching from the tee box as his ball tracked to the hole location like a heat-seeking missile, Riley twirled his club as he let it slide thorough his grasp, looking like a man who was watching a perfect shot perform just as he had expected it to. When the ball came up short, he was visibly upset, and slammed his clubhead into the turf as he walked to the hole.

Scheffler’s ball was in a good lie, despite its position up against the collar of rough around the green. The grass behind the ball was just thin enough to give him a good shot at the back of the ball, and he rolled in the 8-footer for a birdie to take his first, and very timely, lead of the match with little drama.

Both players got onto the green in two at the next hole, the par-five 15th, but Scheffler did it in a manner which gave notice that he was taking command of the match, late in the game but in the nick of time if he were to pull out a win in the championship.

With the hole located on a carport-sized upper tier on the sloping green, Scheffler knocked a low 250-yard shot with a hybrid club that hit short of the green before bouncing and rolling up onto the upper tier some eight feet below the hole. It was a shot of such masterful execution that the Golf Channel commentators – who included two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Kaye Cockerill – could hardly find words to express their admiration. Two-putting for the birdie after Riley three-putted for par from a position much further away and on the lower tier of the green, Scheffler was now two up with three to play.

The match ended on somewhat of a down note on the par-four 16th hole, as a result of Riley calling an infraction on himself as he prepared to putt from just off the green. His ball was in the first cut of rough, just outside of the fringe, and adjacent to a pair of sprinkler heads. Riley stepped up and addressed the ball, then stepped away and called for an official, saying that his ball moved slightly after he addressed it. With the official looking on, he replaced the ball – a matter of moving it a fraction of an inch, and proceeded to two-putt. The one-stroke penalty and resulting bogey on the hole gave the win to Scheffler, 3-and-2.

The victory may seem anticlimactic, given the manner in which the final hole was closed out, but the late rally which put Scheffler in position for the win showed his mental toughness, as he came back from nearly thirty straight holes of trailing his opponent.

“I played pretty well down the stretch,” Scheffler said afterwards. “In the morning round, I gave away a lot of shots and I struggled with the putting a little bit early, then I started to figure it out.”

“You have to be mentally tough. I mean, you have to make putts. You need to perform.”

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Marin County’s Meadow Club hosts 2013 Trans-Mississippi Championship on historic Alister Mackenzie course

The 2013 Trans-Mississippi Championship, a prestigious amateur championship which is now 110 years old, was contested July 9-11 at the Meadow Club in Fairfax, a 1927 Alister Mackenzie-designed golf course in the Marin County uplands north of Mt Tamalpais. The tournament turned into a rematch of sorts for Cory McElyea of Santa Cruz and Bryson DeChambeau of Clovis, the pair that battled it out for the Cal State Amateur title last month on the Dunes Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, but the tables were turned this time around as Bryson DeChambeau came out on top.
McElyea and DeChambeau played in adjacent groupings over the last two rounds of the prestigious amateur championship. McElyea was grouped with two stalwarts from this past season’s strong Cal-Berkeley squad, the just-graduated Max Homa and long-hitting senior-to-be Brandon Hagy; the 36-hole leader DeChambeau was right behind them in a grouping with former University of Arkansas golfer Austin Cook, and UT’s Johnathan Schnitzer.
DeChambeau, a rising sophomore at SMU, was in a strong position at the start of third-round play Thursday morning after putting up back-to-back 65s in the opening rounds. A 5-stroke lead is no guarantee of a win when there are another 36 holes of golf to play, though, and it took solid, mostly error-free play to keep him ahead of his pursuers.
McElyea challenged with a hot start in the morning round, improving his overall score to 10-under by the 14th hole, mostly on the strength of an unfailing putter – he had seven one-putt greens in the first fourteen holes. DeChambeau, in the meantime, had traded birdies and bogeys and improved to -11 by the same point in his round. Though DeChambeau never rekindled the fire he had displayed on the first two days, one stroke back was as close as McElyea would get as his putter cooled off through the final holes.
Recent Cal grad Max Homa, playing one hole ahead of DeChambeau, started slowly in Round 3, and dropped as far as 10 strokes off of the Mustang sophomore’s pace at the start of the first round’s back nine. Homa ran off a string of birdies on the back side of the course and pulled back to within five strokes of DeChambeau, and he continued to gain ground as the players went back out onto the course, after a short lunch break, for the final round.
Three unanswered bogeys in the final nine reversed Homa’s momentum, however, and he finished the tournament six strokes off the lead, tied with McElyea and with Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Charlie Saxon for fourth place. Saxon had a strong final day, putting up a pair of 66’s for the lowest final-day total in the field, but the 10-stroke deficit he had carried into the closing rounds was more than he could overcome.
The two players who tied for second place, Jeremy Sanders, of Chatsworth, CA, and Austin Cook, each had a solid couple of rounds on the final day, but neither came any closer to DeChambeau than three strokes back.
The win over such a strong field is a confidence booster for DeChambeau, who hasn’t won a tournament since high school competition. He joins former SMU Mustang Golf star Kelly Kraft, who won this tournament in 2011 at Kansas City Country Club, on the roster of Trans-Mississippi champions.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s been a long time coming, but this one feels so sweet,” he said after closing out his final round, and the tournament, with a short par putt.
The standard of play displayed by the field of top amateur players in the 2013 Trans-Mississippi Championship was superb. The handsome Meadow Club course, a 1927 Alister Mackenzie design – his first in America – showcases the terrain of the shallow upland valley where it is set. Though shortish – just over 6700 yards – compared to many modern courses, or older tracks that have been lengthened to hold their own against modern equipment, the course maintains its relevance by virtue of Mackenzie’s classic design principles, and provided a worthy test of the shotmaking skills of the highly-skilled amateur players contesting this championship.
With contoured fairways, holes favoring both the draw and the fade, and well-bunkered greens which offer a selection of pin placements ranging from inviting to downright daunting, this is a typical Mackenziean thinking-man’s golf course. The length off the tee that is the hallmark of the modern game can still overpower even Dr Mackenzie’s strategically-placed fairway bunkers, but once within scoring distance the players still had to have their best short game on hand if they were to walk away from the hole with par or better.
McElyea’s cooldown just as he was putting the heat on DeChambeau is a good example. The USF senior-to-be took only 30 putts to get through the first 18 holes on Thursday; his total of 36 putts in the second round was the difference between possibly overtaking DeChambeau for the win and the eventual outcome – settling for T-4. It wasn’t just the putts that were confounding McElyea, though – he was seeing the same flag locations as he had in the morning round – a dropoff in his accuracy on approach, leading to longer, multiple-breaking putts on the complex greens, had much to do with it. McElyea appeared to be opting to play safe as the day wore on, often hitting one or two clubs shorter off the tee than his companions in the group, Max Homa and Brandon Hagy, but that strategy failed him in the end.
As for Homa and Hagy, between Homa’s hot hand late in the morning round, and Hagy’s spectacular length off the tee, the gallery for the group, which was heavy with Cal alumni, (despite being some miles away from the Berkeley campus, Cal plays the Meadow Club as their home course) were enjoying every minute. Hagy wowed onlookers with “bomb-and-gouge” golf which, when he was accurate off the tee, was extremely effective. Case in point – the way he played the 18th hole.
The final hole at the Meadow Club is a 363-yard, dogleg-right par four with a cluster of pines guarding the corner. Homa and McElyea each hit irons off the tee in both rounds on Thursday, opting for a good position in the fairway at the corner of the dogleg from which to hit a wedge to the slightly elevated green. Hagy, on the other hand, stepped up with driver in hand each time, firing a high draw that started right of the trees and curled back toward the green. A daring shot, and doubly so because it goes against both the shape of the hole and the angle of the green. The way Hagy played this hole was a gamble, but one that paid off – he was 2-under on the hole for the tournament, playing it par-birdie-birdie-par over the four rounds.
The long-hitting Cal Bear elicited admiring applause from the gallery on a couple of other holes, too. On the 400-yard par-4 fourth hole, in the final round, he drove his tee shot a good 335 yards from the elevated tee, outdriving his playing companions to the tune of 40+ yards to leave himself a flip wedge to the tucked-right flag. On the ninth hole, a straight-away 464-yard par-4 to another slightly-elevated green, Hagy punched a 365-yard drive to the right-hand side of the fairway no more than 95 yards below the flag, then flipped a high, soft-landing wedge to kick-in birdie distance. The Cal alumni in the gallery were thrilled by the displays of power this young man put on, and even the less-partisan onlookers were mightily impressed.
Not to be entirely outdone by his younger teammate, Max Homa pulled off a shot at the par-4 seventh hole in the final round that club members among the gallery – who have all played that hole hundreds of time – will be talking about for a long time. The seventh hole is hard dogleg left of 436 yards that turns the corner at about 288 yards out from the championship tees. A curious ditch, just a foot or two wide, a foot or so deep, and stepping up six to eight inches from front to back, interrupts the fairway at the inside of the dogleg. There is a generous landing area to the right, at the outside of the turn in the fairway, but the ditch is there waiting to snag a shot that fails in an attempt to cut the inside of the dogleg.

The view to the seventh green standing over Max Homa’s shot
from the curious hazard in the middle of the seventh fairway
Homa’s tee ball ended up in this ditch, and to a recreational player this would have been a sure “unplayable lie” situation. With about 145 yards to the flag, which was tucked hard left behind a formidable Mackenziean bunker, Homa stood over a ball that was in a narrow ditch, eight to 10 inches below his feet – and positively rifled a shot right at the flag.
The evidence of the quality of the shot could be seen in the grass at the bottom of the ditch – a shallow, perfectly-shaped rectangular divot that pointed straight at the flag. Getting out of that lie at all cleanly was a 1,000-to-1 shot, but the result, a perfectly-placed birdie opportunity no more than eight feet past a tucked-left flag behind a yawning bunker, was a million-to-one. If Max Homa takes nothing else away from the 2013 Trans-Mississippi Championship, the memory of that shot will be enough to make this tournament live on in his memory.
The textbook divot – in a ditch – left by Max Homa’s approach shot to the seventh green in the final round. He stiffed this shot to less than eight feet, and made the birdie putt.
The day I spent walking this handsome course, watching a talented field of amateur players play their hearts out for a crystal goblet and bragging rights, was a singular pleasure. The setting is superb – a shallow upland valley called Bon Tempe Meadow that is overlooked, but not overshadowed, by rugged hills. The course lies lightly on the contours of the land, as if embroidered on fine fabric and draped over the landscape. Fine views abound, but for my money the 6th hole, the second-longest of the par-4s on the course, offers the finest vista on the course.
The fairway falls away from the teeing grounds, just slightly, before rising gently to an elevated green back-dropped by a huge outcropping of native rock that is a central visual feature of the course. A small, reedy creek crosses in front of the beginning of the fairway and runs along the right side, separating the sixth from the sixteenth fairway. Trees frame the fairway – willows on the right, in the waterway, and pines on the left – and with the boulder-topped hillock rising behind the green, the sixth hole is like a little valley in its own right, a pastoral setting right out of a William Constable landscape.
The pastoral sweep of the sixth hole at the Alister Mackenzie-designed Meadow Club
in the Marin County uplands north of Mt Tamalpais calms the eye, but the green is deceptively challenging.
The bowl-like setting of the green, with a grassy slope behind the putting surface rising up to meet the natural landscape below the rocky outcrop, is tempting, and deceptive. While the backdrop appears to offer security for a shot that is hit long, the green slopes distinctly back to front, making a chip back to the flag from above the green a difficult proposition. A pair of bunkers sit behind the green, to the left and the right – and only a masterful stroke will keep a recovery shot out of the sand from rolling to the bottom of the putting surface. Another pair of bunkers frame the front of the green, narrowing the entrance and challenging the golfer’s accuracy on the approach.
From the handsome shake-sided clubhouse to the water-fronted 13th green at the farthest reach of the course, the Meadow Golf Club provided an ideal setting for the tournament, and it was most generous of the members and staff of the club to share this beautiful property with the competitors and spectators at the 110th Trans-Mississippi Championship.