Ada, Mich. – The morning clouds cleared and the flood gates opened.
Appropriately, the headline story of Saturday’s deciding match will be that of Jim Liu becoming the youngest champion in U.S. Junior Amateur Championship history at age 14. But the swarm of people that accompanied the final match at Egypt Valley Country Club was a large and worthy subplot.
It only seemed appropriate that the afternoon gallery that swelled to easily more than 400 spectators could’ve easily reached and touched the champion, Liu, and finalist Justin Thomas, during the day’s play. Not even the need for gallery ropes for crowd control – normally reserved for U.S. Opens and U.S. Amateurs – could contain the enthusiasm of the assemblage.
It was better than probably we expected, says Ben Kimball, director of the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship. Doing a quick count in my head, it seems like the numbers were higher than they had been in previous years, which was great. It just shows you how important to the community of Grand Rapids. We were delighted to have it.
There were moms and dads, daughters and sons twirling under their watchful eye, grandparents, tykes, teeny-bops, texters, hopeful Tigers. For the gallery, the final wasn’t so much deciding match as it was a town hall meeting with support of golf in western Michigan at the top of the agenda.
Showing not even a hint of favoritism, the gathering assured, prodded, encouraged, groaned and clapped with nearly every passing shot, undoubtedly sending goose bumps through fellow spectators and the two finalists. Undoubtedly, Liu and Thomas were connected to the all-important process of winning, but their conscience will certainly be tinged with the get theres, all rights, and right at its long after this week.
Spectators less than quick afoot were quickly relegated to the third row; other camped out positions at the green a hole away to assure a better view. How often do you see that at a U.S. Junior Amateur? Due to the sheer number of people, they were even known to disguise one of the finalists on occasion.
After a couple of tee shots, I couldn’t see Justin because the gallery was all around us, Liu says. They were really nice, helped and supported both of us.
In addition to being on hand for uncanny brilliance by both finalists, some gallery members used the final as a teachable moment. The husband-and-wife tandem of Nicki and John Bauer made the morning trek from Detroit with their son, Zach, and were rewarded not just with great golf, but the gift of a take-home message. That’s because Liu and Thomas, who endured an exhausting 162 holes this week, readily showed admiration for one’s another game, appreciation for the gallery and displayed an air-traffic controller’s calm even during the toughest of circumstance.
We have a 15-year-old who is a golfer and I just love that he’s out here watching how they hold it together when they don’t hit a good shot, Nicki says. They have great composure. Wow.
Teenager Eric Kowatch of Grand Rapids plays on the Forest Hills Northern High School golf team, which plays practice rounds at Egypt Valley. Not even the raindrops could dampen his admiration for the area’s enthusiasm for the championship.
There are people from all over the country here watching players represent their state, Kowatch says. It’s actually kind of hard to believe it, but it’s very exciting.
As the championship match reaffirmed, golf’s great separator is that it allows people to get connected to its participants. After the match, both finalists were shaking hands and signing everything from pairing sheets to hats to hair ribbons.
I think Egypt Valley is fortunate to have the opportunity to host this event, says Brad Alward, who took his son, Ciaran, to Saturday’s match. It’s really nice that you have a lot of different people out watching – from everywhere – who are golf enthusiasts.
Even little kids who are getting into golf, for them to come out and watch this match – they’re pretty fortunate to see this kind of golf.
Egypt Valley hosted a Champions Tour event from 1994-2004, but judging by the reaction from the gallery this week, especially during the final, the juniors offered something different, almost a refreshing experience. It was hard to tell who was more stoked for the final-day encounter – the players or the spectators. Likely, the No. 1 reaction of the week was a showing of the hands by the spectators, followed by an admiring shake of the head and then the words just too good.
I’ve heard a number of people say that they haven’t seen this quality – ever – on this course and what a treat it is, says Geoffrey Yang, chairman of the USGA Junior Amateur Championship Committee. It’s a delight everyone here is willing to host us and the most talented juniors in the world showed up in town.
It’s a safe bet that none are more grateful they did than the Lancaster family. Maggie and Scott Lancaster served as the host family for Junior Amateur participant Gavin Hall for the week. In the process, Hall became like a member of the family. After shooting a championship-record 62 in the second round of stroke-play qualifying, Hall returned to the Lancaster residence, not to admire his handiwork, camp out on a couch, check texts or watch cable television. No, the day’s conclusion on the golf course later meant lesson time for the Lancaster’s two young kids, Grant and Aiden.
This is what they taught our boys: Gavin goes out and shoots a 62, comes home, watches ‘Tom and Jerry’ with them and reads them a bedtime story, Maggie says admiringly. They really don’t understand the magnitude of how he played. All they know is that he’s a good big brother. That’s all that counts.
Hall eventually lost in the quarterfinals. Admittedly Maggie and Scott weren’t as disappointed by the setback as they were the reality of the 15-year-old’s flight that returned him home on Saturday morning.
I told his parents that they’d have to drag [Hall] out of our house. We shed a lot of tears, says Maggie, unable to mask her disappointment. Even [Saturday] morning, I woke up and I think there was something missing. It was really tough to see him go.
As the large gallery showed, no one is seemingly ready to see any of the players leave their backyard. After the championship match concluded, the large gallery nearly froze in unison as if to say by their silence, ‘You mean it’s over?’ Like the champion’s proud father Yiming Liu emotionally embracing his son after he won the match, they just didn’t want to let go.
It was such a wonderful experience for all the members, Maggie Lancaster says. If they missed out on this, then they really missed something special.
Andrew Blair is the communications director for the Virginia State Golf Association. He contributed articles at this week's U.S. Junior Amateur for the USGA.