Erin Hills, Wis. – When Patrick Cantlay and Russell Henley get to Royal Aberdeen Golf Club in Scotland next month for the Walker Cup, their USA teammates will need to play the same kind of golf the pair displayed Thursday at Erin Hills.
Let’s just say that the Great Britain & Ireland Team wouldn’t like what was on display.
In one of the most riveting matches in memory at this championship, Cantlay, the No. 1 amateur player according to the World Amateur Golf Ranking, rallied from two holes down with two to play and outlasted Henley, his Walker Cup teammate, in 21 holes in a second-round match at the 111th U.S. Amateur.
It's the kind of thing you live for, said Henley, who earlier this year won a Nationwide Tour event in his native Georgia. I heard Tiger [Woods] say the other day, ‘Just being in the mix of a tournament trying to win, if you fail or not, is just so much fun.’ I just enjoyed being part of it.
Henley, remember, is the player who lost.
It was an unbelievable match. It was a hell of a lot of fun to be a part of, and we both played really well, said Cantlay, 19, of Los Alamitos, Calif., who won the Jack Nicklaus Award as the top collegiate golfer and was low amateur at the U.S. Open, edging Henley. Russell and I are good friends. We played alternate shot together at the Palmer Cup. We had a practice session together for the Walker Cup.
They played alternately exhilarating golf at Erin Hills.
Henley, 22, a recent University of Georgia graduate, appeared ready to oust Cantlay when he birdied the par-3 16th hole from 16 feet to send the match dormie. Buzzards then began circling over Cantlay when he came up short on his 8-iron approach into the 17th hole after Henley had done the same. His chances looked extinguished.
But after having the flagstick taken out of the hole, Cantlay bumped his ball onto the green and, having read the break perfectly, watched the ball disappear into the hole. He reacted with a fist pump. Henley missed to the left on his birdie chip shot from a few yards closer.
It was a straightforward chip, the UCLA sophomore said of his near-miracle effort from about 20 yards out. I just tried to be as free over it as I could and be really precise and luckily enough it went in. I hadn’t gotten anything going on the back side until then, so it was a spark. I just wish I had gotten the spark a little earlier.
Still on the edge of elimination, Cantlay needed another outright win at the 18thhole. Henley assisted when he drove into the right fairway bunker and could only blast out into the fairway. His third shot went just through the green, while Cantlay safely reached in two and two-putted for birdie. The match was all square and going overtime.
The signature moment came on the green at No. 1, another reachable par 5. Both men found the green in two, and Cantlay, putting first, managed to coax in a 35-footer for eagle, the ball just dropping in on the high side. He let loose another fist pump. Now Henley faced the do-or-die stroke, and his 25-footer to top Cantlay caught the lower corner and dropped. He responded with a fist pump of his own.
That’s the most emotion I think I’ve ever shown on the golf course for sure, on one green. Then I tried to settle myself down, Cantlay said. It was that kind of match. It was a big crowd, and everyone was going pretty crazy at that point.
On the long walk to the No. 2 teeing ground, the competitors, who did not talk to each other most of the day, traded a smile and a fist bump.
After pars to halve the 20th hole, the match was finally settled with unsettling circumstances for both players.
Henley followed a perfect drive with a pulled wedge shot that found a narrow bunker above and to the left of the hole. Cantlay, from a scruffy lie in the rough, then proceeded to come up short in the front bunker. Neither recovery was easy, but Cantlay managed to lift his out within 4 feet. Henley could only blast to the edge of the green, and he missed the slick downhill par putt from 20 feet.
Cantlay saved his par, and his hopes of winning the U.S. Amateur, when he calmly rolled in the short putt. The kid who shot 60 in a PGA Tour event in June at The Travelers Championship, a record for an amateur, said this win was only going to give him more confidence.
This helps me a ton, Cantlay said. It’s nice to know that I can pull those shots off when I need them the most. It definitely gives me a little momentum going into my next match, a little added boost.
It was the craziest match I have ever been a part of, and if you told me all that stuff would have happened the way it did, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose material has previously appeared on USGA websites.