Casey Watabu, 22, of Kapaa, Hawaii, recorded a 4-and-3 victory over Anthony Kim, 21, of Traverse City, Mich., to win the 81st U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, which concluded Saturday at the par-72, 7,061-yard Gold Mountain Golf Club.
Watabu took a 1-up lead when Kim was unable to get up and down after missing the green at the par-3 fifth hole, and would never trail again. The lead remained 1 up until the par-3 12th hole, when Kim again missed
the green and left a 25-yard chip 12 feet short of the hole. He two-putted from there and Watabu was able to get up and down from short of the green for par.
At the par-4 13th hole, both players hit into the right rough off the tee. Kim’s second shot sailed over the green and he left his chip on the first cut above the green. His next chip barely missed the hole but sailed 14 feet past. Watabu drained an 18-foot par putt to win the hole and extend his lead to 3 up. Three holes later, on the par-3, 184-yard 16th, Kim missed a 3-foot par putt and Watabu two-putted from 35 feet to increase the edge to 4 up.
“My strategy was, don't give him any holes,” said Watabu. “Just keep on making pars, make him make the birdies and win the holes. I didn't want to give him any holes. I don't think I gave him a hole today. I was going to make sure that he worked for every hole.”
Both players went for the green off the tee on the par-4, 324-yard 18th hole and Kim’s tee shot wound up in the tall grass just above a bunker in front of the green. He chipped up to 14 feet but Watabu, playing from a bunker behind the hole, hit a brilliant shot to within inches of the flagstick, which was conceded. Kim’s 14-footer to halve the hole missed and Watabu headed to the lunch break with a 5-up lead.
“The morning round really cost me,” said Kim. “Once you get that far down it’s pretty hard to come back, but I still thought I had a chance.”
Watabu’s solid play continued to the afternoon session, when he birdied the first two holes to increase the lead to 7 up. It looked like Kim might cut the deficit a hole later when he chipped in from off the green for birdie, but Watabu answered with a 12-foot birdie putt to halve the hole.
Kim, a member of the victorious 2005 USA Walker Cup team, finally got one back on the par-4, 362-yard fourth hole, the 22nd of the match, when he made a 9-foot birdie putt. Back-to-back birdies on the 24th and 25th holes cut Watabu’s advantage to 4 up and it looked like the comeback might be on for Kim, who needed extra holes to win both his second-round and quarterfinal matches.
“It’s never over until the trophy actually gets handed out,” said Kim. “I’ve been down too many times obviously to give up or to think that it’s ever over.”
But that was as close as he would get. Watabu re-upped the lead to 5 up with a birdie on the 29th hole and would close out Kim when the two traded pars on the 15th hole, the 33rd of the match.
“It's unbelievable,” said Watabu of becoming a national champion. “You know, I knew that I could play, and sooner or later it would be my time. I just kept on being patient. It took a while, but it's well worth it. Well worth the wait.”
For Kim, who plans to turn professional after playing the U.S. Amateur in August, it was his second close call at the Public Links. He also reached the semifinals in 2005.
“It was a great week despite the fact I didn’t win,” he said. “I gave it all it had and left it all out there so I can’t really be too disappointed in my effort. But obviously, it’s disappointing to come this far and lose. I lost in the semis last year and I was looking to win this year, which is why I came back.”
There’s no such disappointment for Watabu, who had played in two previous Public Links Championships but never before made the cut. His parents took the redeye Friday night and arrived in time to watch their son win a national championship. They’ll no doubt be traveling to watch him again in Georgia next April – the U.S. Amateur Public Links champion traditionally receives an invitation to play the next Masters Tournament.
“That's the one tournament that I've never ever missed,” said Watabu. “It’s the tournament that you watch from when it first gets on TV until the end. Knowing that I’m going to play in it is crazy. It’s crazy. I’m going to have a lot of fun.”
The U.S. Amateur Public Links is one of 13 national championships conducted annually by the United States Golf Association, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.