Erin, Wis. - Kelly Kraft was a baseball player as a kid. No one in his family played golf, or cared much about it. He took it up on a whim, just to hang out with some friends.
Now he's battling the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, playing for a U.S. Amateur title at Erin Hills.
I'm thrilled, said Kraft, after popping Englishman Jack Senior's dreams with a 3-and-2 win in a semi-final match on Saturday. It hasn't really sunk in yet, I don't think. But I still have one more round to go before tomorrow, so I don't want to get too high before then. Hopefully, I can do some celebrating after tomorrow.
Kraft already is ahead of himself, in a manner of speaking. He was not a high school star in Denton, Texas, and never won anything of note. He had a fine career at Southern Methodist University, a career he recently completed eligibility-wise. His senior season was solid, if unspectacular, and when summer ended, he planned to go back to school and complete a degree in Sociology.
That's the plan, he said with a grin that suggested plans could change. As of right now, yeah.
That was before he caught fire, winning the Texas Amateur and the Trans-Mississippi Amateur in consecutive outings. And that was before he started dropping 15-foot putts at Erin Hills like they were bad habits.
I don't know how many of them I've made, but it's been quite a few, he said. I feel like I've made a lot, feel like I haven't missed many short putts. This is probably pretty close to the best I've ever putted.
The flat stick was still on fire on Saturday. Senior was trying to become the first Englishman to win the U.S. Amateur since 1911, and to that end he took the early lead with a birdie on the first hole. But Senior's advantage was brief, vanishing when he bogeyed No. 2.
From that point Kraft, who survived a 23-hole marathon in the round of 16 to advance, enjoyed the upper hand. He led by 2 up after eight holes before a bogey at No. 9 opened the door a crack. But Kraft won No. 10 with a par, then birdied No. 11 to go 3 up.
Senior fought back with a birdie at No. 12 and it looked as if he might pick up another hole at No. 13. But Kraft's precision putting was prominent again, as he drained a downhill, 8-footer coming back to save par and halve the hole.
That was definitely a key putt to make, Kraft said. I thought that would give me good momentum going to the par 5.
He was correct. Kraft put a choke hold on the match with a spectacular eagle at the par-5 14th hole, knocking his second shot to within 6 feet. The players traded pars at No. 15 and when Senior couldn't drain a long birdie putt on No. 16, he conceded the match.
Kraft will go head to head with Patrick Cantlay in the 36-hole finale at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday. One of the most celebrated amateurs in the country, Cantlay has impressive credentials. The sophomore at UCLA was recently named to the USA Walker Cup Team. He also is the 2011 Jack Nicklaus Award winner and earlier this summer, he set a record by carding a 60 at the PGA Tour Travelers Championship.
As for Kraft, well... he's planning on finishing his degree. Then again, he might make different plans if he wins the U.S. Amateur on Sunday.
We're both playing the same golf course tomorrow, and we've both made it this far, so we're playing pretty good, Kraft said. I like my chances out there tomorrow.