Cherry Hills Village, Colo. – In the vaunted battle of University of Alabama golfers Thursday afternoon at Cherry Hills Country Club, the, um, tide of momentum shifted back and forth throughout an emotional and well-fought match.
When it was over, Justin Thomas might have felt worse than Bobby Wyatt. And Thomas was the winner.
The No. 5-ranked player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR), Thomas converted a 10-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole that spurred him to a 1-up round-of-16 victory over his Crimson Tide teammate and good friend Wyatt at the 112th U.S. Amateur..
“It was hard to shake his hand and have to say, ‘Sorry, man,’ but at the same time, it’s what you have to do,” said Thomas, 19, a sophomore at Alabama who lives across the hall from Wyatt in the same complex. “I felt bad for Bobby. He’s a great friend on and off the golf course. Hopefully, he won’t pick on me like he does now.”
Thomas advances to the quarterfinals, where he will meet Oliver Goss of Australia at 8:30 a.m. MDT Friday. Goss, 18, advanced by stopping the lone remaining mid-amateur, 27-year-old Bobby Leopold, of Cranston, R.I., 2 and 1.
Wyatt, 20, came into the match sixth in the WAGR, and he was the stroke-play medalist after tying the Amateur 36-hole scoring mark of 132 (nine under). Earlier in the day he had rallied from 2 down to defeat Matthew Stieger of Australia, 2 up. This time, the Mobile, Ala., native let a 2-up lead slip away with a series of small miscues that loomed large in the final accounting.
“It’s tough. We’re great friends,” said Wyatt, a junior who served as a mentor for Thomas when he arrived at Alabama in the fall of 2011. “We play against other every day [at school], but out here it’s a little different circumstances. But I’m happy for him. I really mean that. He’s a great guy. I’d rather lose to him than anyone else.”
“We didn’t want to see that match in the third round,” said Michael Greller, who is carrying Thomas’ bag for the third year in a row in the U.S. Amateur. “It was well-played by both guys. I think Justin shot one under, which he needed to do. He’s a helluva golfer.”
If there was a turning point to the match, it came when Wyatt suffered two bogeys and a double-bogey in a six-hole stretch starting at the par-4 seventh hole. He had gone ahead, 2-up, thanks to a 12-foot eagle at the fifth set up by a 4-iron, and a Thomas bogey at the next hole.
Thomas, of Goshen, Ky., squared the match when he birdied the eighth and edged ahead at the 10th by getting up and down for par while Wyatt bogeyed from the front-greenside bunker.
The crusher for Wyatt, at least psychologically, came at the par-3 12th. With Thomas already missing the green left, Wyatt blew his tee shot even farther afield, about 20 yards over the green. He chipped to 50 feet and three-putted to hand Thomas the win and a 2-up edge.
“I gave it all back in a four-hole stretch,” Wyatt said. “The course really changed, got a little firmer. Par was a good score. Really, the turning point in the match was that he shorted-sided himself at 12, and I did it right on top of him. You can’t let bogeys beat you. That definitely was disappointing. I don’t feel like I played poorly but definitely not pleased.”
Nevertheless, Wyatt managed to claw back to all-square when Thomas bogeyed the 13th and 15th. They halved the 16th with solid par 4s to set up sweaty-palms time.
Thomas appeared to be in trouble at 17 when he missed the fairway well left and had to negotiate a layup shot through tall trees. He hit a punch-draw with a 9-iron that came off perfectly, stopping just short of the water in front of the island green. Wyatt, who reached the green in two after a mammoth 400-yard drive in his 2-up second-round win on Thursday morning, drove in the fairway and chose to lay up. But then he pumped his wedge over the green, while Thomas knocked his third shot onto the putting surface short of the hole.
“It was a poorly executed shot,” Wyatt said flatly.
Wyatt recovered nicely to within a foot, but Thomas calmly rolled in his birdie try to regain the lead. A drive in the fairway at 18 and 6-iron to the green from 205 yards set up a 30-foot birdie putt, which he lagged to within inches, good enough with Wyatt lying 3 just off the green.
They shook hands warmly and then shared the spotlight in an interview with NBC/Golf Channel reporter Roger Malbie, just as friends and teammates should.
“Obviously, I wanted to win, Bobby wanted to win. I didn’t realize how tough that would be,” Thomas said. “I think that says a lot about Alabama golf and our friendship and how close we are as a team. I’m obviously very excited, and I look forward to the next match.”
“It’s probably really hard on Justin right now,” said Alabama coach Jay Seawell, who walked every step of the way with his players. “He should be excited right now about going to the [quarterfinals], which is a huge accomplishment, but I’m sure he feels kind of bad, too. I thought they handled themselves well today, I thought they represented the university well, and I thought they played some really good golf.”
Hard to sum it up better than that.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.