Erin, Wis. - Eugene Wong didn't have to wait long to be tested in the match-play portion of the 111th U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills. In the first round of matches on Wednesday, he drew Peter Uihlein, the reigning U.S. Amateur champ, the No. 3 amateur in the current World Ranking.
Yeah, nothing like getting the defending champion right out of the box, huh, Wong said, with a smile. But you know, you might as well go right to the top right off the bat, see where you stand.
Wong wound up giving Uihlein somewhat of a scare, but in the end, Uihlein finished off the match at No. 17, prevailing 3 and 1 and keeping alive his hopes of winning back-to-back U.S. Amateurs.
I made a couple of mistakes at the end and you can't do that, said Uihlein, who had the match dormie with four holes to play but needed three more holes to close out Wong. Eugene is a good player and you can't let your guard down out here at anytime, and I did. That's when I lost some holes.
After completing the last four holes of his stroke-play card at Blue Mound Golf and Country Club in the morning, Uihlein advanced with a score of 5-under 137. Wong advanced with a score of 1-under 141. This has not been the best of seasons for Wong, a University of Oregon product.
But that's the short of it. The long of it is Wong was the 2010 Jack Nicklaus Award recipient and the 2010 Pac-10 Golfer of the Year.
That said, Uihlein is on a mission to be the first player to win consecutive Amateurs since Tiger Woods won three in a row from 1994 through 1996. And to that end, he left no cracks in the door for Wong.
Yeah, I thought I was pretty solid, said Uihlein, a rising senior at Oklahoma State. You gotta drive the ball here and then you have to get it close to the green or close to the hole. I mean, the pins were hard today. But in match play, you just have to go out and try to play your game and try to control the match.
Uihlein kept a lid on things by hitting nine of 13 fairways, including five of the first six. He then asserted himself with an opportunistic putter. He made a 15-foot putt to save par at No. 3 and go 1 up. He then set up another par at No. 4 with a long lag putt and went 2 up.
Wong dug in and Uihlein's lead see-sawed between 1 up and 2 up until he made more definitive statement by sinking a 15-footer for a par at No. 10, re-establishing the 2-up gap. He then dropped a 5-foot putt at No. 11 to stretch the lead to three, then birdied No. 13 with an 11-footer to go 4 up.
Wong appeared to be on borrowed time. But the Vancouver, Canada, native was in a similar position last year, three holes down with three holes to play in his first match of the 2010 U.S. Amateur. He rallied to tie that match and win it on the 19th hole.
That definitely was on my mind, Wong said. I mean, it happened last year. Who knows, it could happen again, right?
Sure enough, Uihlein missed a fairway at No. 15 and Wong won the hole with a birdie. It was 2010 all over again – down three with three to play. At No. 16, a 197-yard par 3, Uihlein hit his tee ball into a greenside bunker. He duffed his second, muffed his third and conceded a par to his fellow competitor. Wong was two holes down with two holes to play. Deja vu all over again?
I was getting some confidence there, Wong said.
But the improbable comeback expired at No. 17. Uihlein put his drive in the fairway, knocked his second to the left of the green and chipped to within 5 feet. When Wong ran his third shot way past the hole, he took off his cap and extended his hand.
Match play is luck of draw like that, Uihlein said. I mean, I'm sure there is somebody who lost a match today who played better than me, and would have beaten me. That's just the way it is. So I'm happy to move on and get ready for the next one.
Uihlein, who is from Orlando, Fla., is the marquee name in this U.S. Amateur field that is filled with distinguished players. A gallery of some 65 or 70 people hoofed across expansive Erin Hills to follow the match. Uihlein is well aware of the notoriety, but not the least bit intimidated by wearing the No. 1 target on his back.
I mean, anybody you play against is going to try to play well, Uihlein said. It's obviously an honor to win the U.S. Amateur. But you know, I really don't think about (last year) too much. I just try to play my game and see if it works.
So far, so good.