Just 32 players remain in the 117th U.S. Amateur Championship at The Riviera Country Club. More than half the matches (20 of 36) reached the 17th hole on a day that featured plenty of excitement and drama. On his 21st birthday, Will Zalatoris, the 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur champion, chipped in twice and holed a 30-foot putt – all on the second nine – to defeat fellow Junior Amateur champion Philip Barbaree, 1 up.
Here are some other facts and figures from the Round of 64, as well as some comments from the competitors:
Playoff Push: Wednesday began with a 13-for-8 playoff to fill out the match-play bracket, but those who advanced weren’t just content getting in – five won their first-round matches. Joey Vrzich, Billy Walthouse, Doc Redman, Braden Thornberry and Chun An Yu were all victorious against their higher-seeded opponents. They will attempt to join Steven Fox (2012) and Edoardo Molinari (2005) as the only U.S. Amateur champions to emerge from a playoff.
Top Ams Go Down: The two top players in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™ (WAGR) lost on Monday, as No. 1 Joaquin Niemann and No. 2 Maverick McNealy fell in the Round of 64. Both players received a tough draw, having to face opponents also ranked in the top 13 of the WAGR. Niemann, of Chile, was edged, 2 up, by Braden Thornberry, the NCAA Division I champion, while McNealy fell to Connor Syme, of Scotland, 2 and 1.
World No. 2 McNealy, who made just one birdie in defeat: “I could have done a lot better than I did, but that’s only motivation to work hard. I know for sure tomorrow won’t be a day off. I’m still very confident in my game. I think I’ve seen flashes that I haven’t seen for a long time in my game this week. I think for the last nine or 12 months I felt like my game has been very close but just haven’t quite had that event or round or shot that kind of breaks me through.”
Niemann, who played all three days with Thornberry: “I think this day was the best golf I played in the tournament. But yeah, it was a really tough match with Braden. He’s got a really good short game. He made so many up and downs and he chipped in like three times.”
Ricky Castillo, 16, and Sahith Theegala, 19, both live about 50 miles east of Los Angeles and won their opening-round matches. When asked about the benefit of playing close to home, Castillo, of Yorba Linda, and Theegala, of Chino Hills, spoke about Riviera’s famed kikuyu grass: “The grass is a big factor,” said Castillo. “It’s considered a weed and I think chipping out of it is a huge advantage for me.”
“I think people, especially coming from the East Coast, don’t play on kikuyu very much at all,” said Theegala. “You can either get perfect lies or it’s almost impossible.”
Cowboy Up: It was a good day for players from Oklahoma State University. All three who qualified for match play – Kristoffer Ventura, Hayden Wood and Zach Bauchou – won on Wednesday. One is certain to advance into the Round of 16 as well: Ventura and Wood square off at 7:15 a.m. PDT in tomorrow’s first match.
Course Setup Changes: Alternate teeing grounds were used for holes No. 5 and 14 during the first round of match play. At 444 yards, the par-4 fifth played more than 35 yards longer than it did during stroke play, while the par-3 14th utilized the left teeing ground, shortening the hole by 20 yards to 157. Additionally, with a front-left hole location, the par-4 10th measured just 288 yards, enticing several players to try to drive the green. Two knocked it on the putting surface in the Round of 64 and Syme’s eagle putt from 6 feet was conceded.
Riviera has held 54 Los Angeles Opens, two PGA Championships and is now hosting its third USGA championship. Syme, 21, of Scotland, on the challenges of Riviera: “It’s probably one of the best courses I’ve ever played, to be honest with you. It requires you have a lot of different shots. You need to shape it both ways. Strategy is very important. Get it off the tee and keep it on the right side of the hole because you can get in some horrible positions.”