Austin Eaton III, 35, of New London, N.H., defeated Josh Dennis, 27, of Birmingham, Ala., 1 up, Thursday in the 36-hole championship match of the 24th U.S. Mid-Amateur played at the 6,967-yard, par-70 Seaside Course at Sea Island Golf Club.
The two competitors were all square going to the 36th hole, a par 4 measuring 470 yards. Dennis, playing first, pushed his drive right into a lateral water hazard, while Eaton found the fairway. Faced with a 205-yard approach, Eaton choked down on a 4-iron and hit a well-placed shot 25 feet slightly above the flagstick.
Following a drop, Dennis came up just short of the green with his third shot. His ensuing chip shot stopped 10 feet short. Eaton lagged his birdie putt to 2 feet and when Dennis failed to hole his bogey putt, he conceded the match.
"It's pretty amazing," said Eaton of winning his first USGA championship. "When I knelt out there next to the trophy on the 18th green, it kind of hit me then that it's my trophy this year. It's pretty cool. And I've got a lot of amazing golf tournaments to play in."
By winning the Mid-Amateur, Eaton is now exempt from qualifying for the next 10 Mid-Amateurs, the next two U.S. Amateurs and he is likely to receive an invitation to play in the 2005 Masters. He also receives a three-year exemption from local qualifying for the U.S. Open and custody of the Robert T. Jones Memorial Trophy for one year.
As the runner-up, Dennis is exempt from qualifying for the next three U.S. Mid-Amateurs and next year's U.S. Amateur as well as getting a one-year exemption from local qualifying for the U.S. Open.
"I probably came further than I ever thought I could," said Dennis, who was competing in his first USGA championship. "I'll be very excited tonight when I get home. After I settle down and forget about that last shot, I'll be very happy."
For the first time all week, the gusty winds that are so prevalent here finally kicked into high gear, making a challenging golf course play all that more difficult. Calculating yardages and even getting correct reads on putts created a sterner test for the competitors.
"All day, any shot that you got up in the wind, it either killed it or it just kicked it somewhere bad," said Dennis. "The wind was just brutal. The greens were getting fast and firm. It made those chip shots around those tightly mown areas very difficult. It was very, very important to just hit crisp shots and to hit solid shots."
Eaton shot the equivalent of 4-over-par 74 in the morning round with the usual match-play concessions and had a 78 in the afternoon. Dennis shot 76 in the morning and 75 in the afternoon. Eaton reached 19 of 36 greens in regulation, while Dennis found 17 of 36 in regulation.
Dennis had rallied to win two of his three previous matches, including a 1-up, third-round victory over Mark Thompson when he was three holes down with five to play. In the semifinals against William Johnson, he was one down going to 16 and won the last three holes to post a 2-up victory.
Dennis had a similar situation against Eaton when he came to the 34th hole, 1 down. He rolled in a 15-footer for birdie to square the match for the third time in the final. The two players halved the par-3 35th hole with pars - Eaton holing a tough 4-footer for par and Dennis two-putting from 30 feet.
With the wind gusting from left to right, Dennis just slightly mishit his driver sending the ball right.
"His drive wasn't all that bad," said Eaton. "That wind was going hard. I figured he might be in the bunker. He showed a lot of grit, to birdie 16 (34th of match). That was something else. [For me] to stand up on that tee after he hit it in trouble, I had to rely on my routine and just trust it and go.
“I just kept saying to myself, 'Stay focused on this shot right now’ because your mind can really wander. And my mind did wander more than a couple of times today and it cost me."
Eaton seemed in control of the match throughout the morning 18. He birdied the par-4 first hole and twice built as much as a 4-up advantage before he missed a 3½-footer for par at the 18th, which dropped his lead to 3 up going into the lunch break.
That gave Dennis a little momentum for the afternoon round and he won two of the first four holes to trim the deficit to one. He squared the match at the 26th hole and then took his first lead and only lead of the match at the 29th hole when Eaton lipped out a 2½-footer for par.
Eaton immediately squared the match at the par-3 30th hole with a par and took a 1-up lead at the par-4 31st hole with another par. Eaton had a chance to go 2 up at the par-4 32nd hole, but his 6-footer for par stopped inches short of the hole.
"I thought that putt was in when I hit it," said Eaton.
Both players halved the par-5 33rd hole, setting the stage for the dramatic finish.
"He had the look in the eyes and all afternoon he looked confident," said Eaton. "He putted it very confidently. I thought he was going to take it away from me if I didn't step up and he nearly did."
The U.S. Mid-Amateur is one of 13 national championships conducted annually by the United States Golf Association, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.