U.S. AMATEUR FOUR-BALL
Future is Now for Teen Phenoms at Jupiter Hills Club May 21, 2018 | Tequesta, Fla. By Jeff Babineau

Cole Hammer (left) and his partner, Garrett Barber, have dazzled during the first three days of the championship. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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At 5 p.m. sharp on Monday during the Round of 32 at the 4th U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship, golf’s future held an impromptu meeting on the second nine of the Hills Course at the Jupiter Hills Club. It’s still unclear who called it to order, but an impressive group was in attendance. 

Standing on the tee of the 233-yard 14th hole were defending champions Frankie Capan and Ben Wong. Standing only 20 yards away to their left, playing into a stiff breeze on the 180-yard 11th hole, were Cole Hammer and Garrett Barber, the two hottest competitors on the property. 

If you think golf’s future is fine as is, just wait until you see what’s around the corner. All four are 18 years old, winding down decorated junior careers. In the fall, they’ll splinter off in different directions to join some of the best golf programs in the country – Capan to the University of Alabama, Wong to Southern Methodist University, Hammer to Texas, and Barber to Louisiana State University. 

Do they talk about their futures, and what lies ahead in five or 10 years? Not a great deal. But as they dedicate themselves to hours of practice and competition, and many long days under the sun, all four can't help but daydream occasionally about what will be.

If you wonder how close they are, here’s a scene: Leading 1 up with partner Capan, Wong had already hit his tee shot on 14, but stayed to watch Hammer, whose tee shot kept drifting right in the wind, bounded off a grassy bank and crashed into water guarding the green. Fortunately, Hammer’s partner, Barber, already had struck a beautiful shot that stopped 12 feet left of the hole location on a back shelf.

Wong sprinted up to Hammer, put his hand on the back of his neck, and said, “Dude, I hit that SAME shot!” Though he wasn’t pleased with where his ball had finished, Hammer couldn’t help but chuckle at Wong’s playful words.

“We’re all such good friends,” Wong said after he and Capan held off second-seeded Zach Burry and Trent Wallace, 3 and 1. “I think we look at Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas and all those guys that played junior golf together, and grew up together, and we see a little bit of that in ourselves, which is pretty cool. 

“It’s a matter of time. Obviously, we all have to work hard, but hopefully we can accomplish that.”

Hammer and Barber rolled past two solid mid-amateurs from Delaware, Ed Brown and Jay Whitby, 7 and 6. In four years of the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball, no side ever has won a match by a larger margin. Brown and Whitby had stood on their 20th hole in qualifying at 6 over par, then reeled off eight birdies in 16 holes to get into Monday morning's 7-for-6 playoff on the Village Course. 

For the youngsters, the idea was to get up early and never let their opponents see any light. After going 2 up through two holes, Hammer and Barber executed the plan perfectly. 

Hammer, who shares the same coach as Spieth (Cameron McCormick) and will be headed to Spieth’s alma mater (Texas, to which Hammer verbally committed in the eighth grade), has forged a nice relationship with Spieth, the level-headed, 24-year-old, three-time major champion. When Hammer qualified for the U.S. Open at age 15, it was Spieth who guided him around Chambers Bay in a practice round. Spieth then won the U.S. Open for his third USGA championship (in 2011 he joined Tiger Woods as the only multi-time champion of the U.S. Junior Amateur). 

“Jordan worked with Cam and went to Texas, and I’m about to start that journey this fall,” Hammer said. “It’s been good. He’s been really nice to me every time I’ve seen him. It’s just fun to see what he has done. It’s an inspiration thing for me.”

Barber, who won the 2018 Jones Cup, lives in Stuart, only 25 minutes door to door from Jupiter Hills, so he’s close to home this week, playing in front of friends and family. He and Hammer were spinning their wheels in the opening round of stroke play when Hammer turned to him and suggested that some two-man teams, such as Spieth and Patrick Reed, find success as a duo when they try to beat one another. So instead of relying too much on the other guy, which is what they’d been doing, they took care of themselves, and heated up. 

In Round 2 of stroke play, playing the tougher of Jupiter Hills’ two courses (Hills), the pair went out in 7-under 28, a nine-hole championship record.

Monday delivered a lot of the same. This time, Barber played his best golf of the week. He birdied the seventh hole from 4 feet and lofted a 7-iron on the uphill, 211-yard ninth that nearly finished in the hole. His opponents conceded the 2-footer for birdie, putting the side 5 up at the turn.

What's the most heated head-to-head matchup that Barber and Hammer ever had in a competition? "It was probably today," Barber said, laughing.

Brown, a former college quarterback at West Chester, tried to answer with a 15-footer for birdie at 10, but Hammer stepped up, ice cold, and topped him with a 10-footer that never left the center of the hole.

One could almost hear Dandy Don Meredith singing, “Turn out the lights, the party is over…”

The match ended on 13, with Barber and Hammer in close for pars.

In Tuesday morning's Round of 16, Barber and Hammer will face mid-amateurs John Sawin and Tug Maude, old pals who grew up in the junior program at Merion Golf Club in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore, Pa. The quarterfinals will be played Tuesday afternoon. Barber and Hammer are going to be tough opponents to beat if they keep hitting it so straight off the tee. They’ve been giving themselves plenty of birdie looks and have a knack for constantly applying pressure. 

“I was impressed by how far they hit it, and how straight,” said Whitby, 31, a car salesman who has three Delaware Amateur titles to go along with a Delaware Open. “It’s just hard to hit a ball that far and keep it that straight. For 18 year-old-kids, they’re pretty polished. I don't know how you get like that at that age without a lot of hard work and going to see some top-level coaches. 

"Those kids are just really, really good. They’ve got bright futures. I’m sure we’ll be watching them on TV, no doubt.”

No doubt. Other future meetings are likely in the offing.

Jeff Babineau is an award-winning Florida-based freelance writer.

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