In a memorable match that was closer than the final score indicated, William Zalatoris, of Plano, Texas, defeated Davis Riley, of Hattiesburg, Miss., 5 and 3, to win the 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at The Club at Carlton Woods’ Nicklaus Course. It is the first USGA championship title for Zalatoris and the second consecutive U.S. Junior runner-up finish for Riley.
"This is the one I've always wanted to win," said Zalatoris, who was making his fifth and final appearance in the championship he first qualified for when he was 12. "This is the tournament that really pushed me to play golf. And I really, really wanted to win this, and this is the first week that I really felt like I could do it. My emotions are running like crazy."
The battle between these two accomplished 17-year-olds began at 8 a.m. CDT and got off to the kind of start that is worthy of a championship final. Zalatoris and Riley hit their approach shots to the par-4 first hole to 25 feet and 15 feet, respectively, and both drained the birdie putts. It was one of four holes that they would halve with birdies in a match that was rarely without precise shot-making and clutch putting.
The players went back and forth between 1 up and all square through the 10th hole. Riley made his first surge after that, birdieing 11 and 12, the latter when he knocked in a curling, downhill putt from the back fringe on the 160-yard par 3.
The 2-up margin was short-lived, however. Zalatoris won the next hole to cut the deficit in half, and the players arrived at the dramatic par-5 18th hole, which has been the site of clutch shots and exciting finishes all week, with Riley nursing a 1-up lead.
On 18, both players hit wayward drives and had to lay up, and Zalatoris was first to play his third. He executed a near-perfect shot from 105 yards that landed close to the hole and settled 5 feet away. Riley, trying to match it, instead came up just short in the greenside bunker, and Zalatoris rolled in the birdie to square the match at the midway point.
"It did mean a lot, having a little bit of momentum," said Zalatoris about the birdie on 18. "The morning was awesome, just back and forth. And this afternoon I really played the round of my life."
Indeed, Zalatoris emerged from the lunch break with his foot on the gas. He birdied the first two holes – the 19th and 20th of the match – to take his first 2-up lead of the day. Though Riley birdied the next hole to cut the margin to 1 up, it was clear that Zalatoris was on top of his game and Riley, though also playing well, would have a hard time regaining the lead.
With Zalatoris holding a 3-up advantage through 30 holes, the match was effectively decided over the next two holes. On the par-5 13th hole (the 31st of the match), Riley hit a driver off the deck from more than 275 yards, reaching the first cut of rough just short and right of the green. His chip ran roughly 8 feet past the hole, but with Zalatoris facing a 4-footer for par, it was Riley’s chance to get to within 2 down of his opponent. The putt stopped one inch to the right of the hole, much to Riley’s frustration.
The 437-yard 14th hole is fairly straight but has a narrow fairway and a difficult green that slopes away from the players. Here, on the 32nd hole of the match, Riley hooked his drive into the rough on the left yet hit a lovely approach shot that bounced in the front of the green and rolled over a ridge to within 10 feet of the hole. Zalatoris, from the middle of the fairway, then hit the shot of the championship.
From 119 yards, he selected his 56-degree wedge and, sticking to the game plan that he and his caddie, Scott Fawcett, had agreed upon, Zalatoris took dead aim at the flagstick. The shot soared high and landed just short of the hole, then took one hop and went in for an eagle-2 that must have felt like a dagger to a stunned Riley.
"That's the shot I'll never forget," said Zalatoris. "That hole has been giving me fits all week. To see that go in and not have to deal with putting on that green was great satisfaction. I really had to slow myself down after that."
Four up and dormie, Zalatoris needed to simply avoid a big mistake to gain the victory. He ripped a drive down the middle of the fairway on the next hole and reached the green safely, while Riley missed long and left with his approach. Zalatoris ended up with a conceded par and the 5-and-3 victory, soaking in the applause and adulation of his family, friends and the gallery.
"You know, this one, it touches my heart, to be honest with you," said Zalatoris. "Just spin this trophy around and look at the names, it's amazing."
The victory continues a sizzling summer for Zalatoris, who won the Texas State Amateur in June and the Trans-Miss Championship, held at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., two weeks ago. He will begin his college career at Wake Forest University in the fall.
Riley, who became the only player in U.S. Junior Amateur history to lose in two finals, was magnanimous in defeat.
"He played well, and congrats to him," said Riley. "I'm really proud of how I played. I didn’t beat myself; he just deserved it."
Both finalists are in the field for the 114th U.S. Amateur, which will be contested Aug. 11-17 at Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga. Riley will attempt to learn from his U.S. Junior experiences and perhaps write a different ending, while Zalatoris will look to continue the momentum of what has become the most special and successful year of his golf life.
Greg Midland is the USGA’s director of editorial and multimedia content. Email him at email@example.com.
67TH U.S. JUNIOR AMATEUR CHAMPIONSHIP
THE WOODLANDS, Texas – Results from Saturday’s 36-hole final of the 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at The Club at Carlton Woods’ Nicklaus Course (7,212 yards, par 72):
William Zalatoris, Plano, Texas (140) def. Davis Riley, Hattiesburg, Miss. (138), 5 and 3