Midway, Utah – If medalist James Erkenbeck wins the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, expect him to play a lot of holes at Soldier Hollow Golf Course.
“I can’t really seem to take a big lead,” said Erkenbeck, 22, a San Diego native who is a rising senior at the University of New Mexico. “But when things start going the wrong way, I find a way to get back into it. I think 90 percent of my matches go to 18.”
After being the underdog in previous matches at the Public Links – he lost to Rickie Fowler in 2009 and Harris English in 2011 – Erkenbeck will be the favorite against Alex Edfort, of Somerset, N.J., in his first-round match.
“I feel like after playing against [Fowler and English], I’m pretty well tested,” said Erkenbeck, who reached the third round last year at Bandon Dunes Resort in Oregon.
Eckenbeck hopes his relatively error-free play – he only made two bogeys in stroke play – will carry over to match play.
“You’re still going to hit the same shots off the tee,” he said. “You’re going to play the holes differently depending on your opponent, but the strategy remains the same.”
Although he is from the coast, Erkenbeck is energized by Soldier Hollow’s altitude, which is similar to the elevation in Albuquerque, N.M., where he plays and practices collegiately. Plus, he has a trick for playing a mile above sea level.
“I love playing altitude,” he said. “I feel like there’s less friction so the ball is harder to curve. So it lets me relax a little bit because I know if I hit it solid and start it on line, it’s going to end up in play, which is the most important thing on this course.”
Wearing a cap and sunglasses, Johnny Miller cut a relatively anonymous figure at Soldier Hollow. But it was easy to recognize the 1973 U.S. Open champion and NBC lead golf analyst once he started providing his views about the hilly layout.
“A lot of these kids play on flat golf courses,” said Miller, who lives in nearby Charleston, Utah “And when they play a lot on flat courses, they struggle on hilly ones.
“And then adjusting to the altitude is really hard for them. The thing that people don’t know is that when you hit it in the rough and you can’t spin it, the ball just comes out and drops. It’s not like down at sea level.”
Insights like these have made Miller an entertaining presence in the broadcast booth, as he will be this week during the U.S. Senior Open at Indianwood Golf & Country Club in Lake Orion, Mich. He has never been afraid of making a prediction, and he has a favorite this week.
“Zac Blair has a chance to win it all,” said Miller. “He’s played this course and he’s a Utah boy. My son [Todd] coaches him [at BYU].”
The honorary chairman for the Public Links, Miller would like to see additional USGA championships in Utah, especially at Thanksgiving Point, which he designed.
“We have some very nice courses now,” said Miller. “Thanksgiving Point was designed for big events. I don’t see why not.”
Speaking of Blair, the Ogden resident shot 2-under 69 in the second round for a 36-hole total of 2-under 140. The improved round made him feel better about his game going into match play.
“It was a little better today,” said Blair. “If I can get the putter going, it should be pretty good. As long as you can shoot around par and not make too many mistakes, you have a pretty good shot [of winning your match].”
Blair, 21, made it to match play in the 2009 and 2010 Public Links, but lost in the first round both times.
“I’ve taken myself out of it in the first round by making too many mistakes,” said Blair. “As long as I can keep playing the way I played today, that should get it done. It’s avoiding bogeys more than anything.”
Also trying to improve his USGA match-play record is fellow Utah resident Dan Horner, who matched Blair at 2-under 140 after shooting 71 in the second round.
“I didn’t play great, but I would have taken this score at the beginning of the day,” said Horner, 34. “I prefer match play because it frees you up a little bit. I know my match-play record in USGA events is not that great. I think it’s 1-4.”
Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. You can reach him at email@example.com.