Cherry Hills Village, Colo. – Michael Weaver proved uncannily adept at ending holes as quickly as possible Saturday at Cherry Hills Country Club. As a result, he’ll play again Sunday with the U.S. Amateur title on the line.
A redshirt junior at the University of California-Berkeley, Weaver birdied his first three holes and five of his first 10 against Alabama’s Justin Thomas, and he used that surge to hold on for a 3-and-2 victory in the first semifinal match at the 112th U.S. Amateur.
“I didn’t quite expect this,” said Weaver, 21, of Fresno, Calif., who a little more than two weeks ago missed the cut in the Western Amateur and retreated home to reassess his game, particularly his spotty putting. “I hoped that I would be here, but I by no means expected that I would be playing on Sunday.
“But I worked really hard at home, worked on my putting, worked on everything. I just wanted to make sure that I did everything I could to be ready for this event.”
Thus, Weaver will now participate in a dreamers’ final. He’ll take on Steven Fox, of Hendersonville, Tenn., at 7:30 a.m. MDT Sunday in the 36-hole finale between long shots. Fox, 21, held off Weaver’s Cal teammate Brandon Hagy, 2 up, in the second semifinal. The final features two of the lowest seeds in the championship, with Weaver 60th and Fox 63rd after they both survived the 17-for-14 playoff on Wednesday morning.
Weaver’s ability to get the ball in the hole first set the tone against Thomas. It also was a welcome change after the comebacks he had to mount in previous matches.
Against 2011 USA Walker Cup member Patrick Rodgers in the second round, he was 3 down through 11 holes before a furious rally helped him advance. Weaver also faced elimination against Canada’s Albin Choi in the third round. Two down with two holes remaining, Weaver won holes 17 through 19 to stay alive.
“The start was incredible. It was awesome,” said Weaver, who was the equivalent of four under par, with the usual match-play concessions. “First three birdies to start were great, get the momentum going in my favor. And I just kept hitting good shots and giving myself chances. … To have that happen, to start like that in the biggest match I’ve ever played in was an awesome feeling.”
While Weaver’s early barrage led to a 2-up lead, the key interlude to the tussle came at holes 7 and 8. On the former, Thomas, after a bogey at the fourth hole left him 3 down, missed an 8-foot birdie putt to cut into the deficit. On the par-4 eighth, Weaver drained a 40-footer for birdie to go 4 up.
“Justin is a great player, college player of the pear, all that,” Weaver said, “[But] there’s always someone who gets hot, and today that was me, fortunately.”
Indeed, Thomas, 19, came in with lofty credentials as winner of the Haskins and Jack Nicklaus awards as the nation’s top collegiate golfer in Division I. He’d also won the Phil Mickelson Award as the nation’s top freshman golfer.
Weaver had to expect a retort, even after he holed a curling 20-footer for birdie at the 10th hole to pad his advantage to 5 up.
Sure enough, Thomas, who also had rallied from multiple-hole deficits throughout the championship, finally won a hole at the par-3 12th. He got up and down for par from a thick lie behind the green with a delicate pitch shot and a 7-foot putt while Weaver made bogey from just off the green. Thomas now had the honor on the tee for the first time since the opening hole.
“I’m very proud of myself that I gave myself a chance,” said Thomas, of Goshen, Ky., who was the 2010 U.S. Junior Amateur runner-up. “I could have packed it in and not even had a chance.”
That chance improved when he sank another important par putt, this one from 6 feet, at the 14th while Weaver again failed to save par after missing the green short. And after sinking a 10-foot birdie putt at the par-3 15th, set up by a gap wedge, Thomas got in his first fist-pump of the match.
He had cut Weaver’s lead to 2 up.
“I was obviously getting really pumped up,” said Thomas, who then struck a 9-iron to 14 feet at the 16th hole.
That’s when Weaver stepped up and blunted the surge with the shot of the match, hitting his own 9-iron inside Thomas to 6 feet.
“It was perfect. I think I probably hurt my dad’s hand first-bumping him afterwards,” Weaver said sheepishly. “He wasn’t paying attention. I kind of whacked him I was just so pumped up. I mean, just to turn it around like that, hit a good shot after Justin started to make a run really got me back on track and got my mind in the right place to go ahead and knock that putt in.”
Thomas’ birdie attempt peeked at the hole, but slipped by on the left. Weaver then calmly rolled in his putt to finish the match.
“I was too far down too late in the match,” Thomas said. “Yeah, although it hurts a lot to lose, especially this late in the tournament, it’s a lot better to get beat than lose. I’m going to take a lot of positives from this week.”
When the winning putt dropped, Weaver let out a yell and then hugged his father, Bill, who caddies for him in most golf events. “I don’t even remember seeing it go in. I was celebrating already,” he said.
Later, the young man teared up talking about sharing the biggest win of his career thus far with his dad.
“That was pretty special. I’ll remember that forever,” said Weaver, who by reaching the finals is exempt into the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club and will receive a likely invitation to next spring’s Masters. “My dad caddies for me all the time. I’m so excited that he could be here to be a part of this. I owe a lot to him. He’s supported me all along, everything I needed along the way, and I wouldn’t be here without him. And I’m just so happy that he could be here.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.