Round 1: The Evening Report
August 14, 2017 | Pacific Palisades, Calif.
The morning layer of low clouds – very typical for coastal California – that hung over Riviera and Bel-Air lifted by 10 a.m. on Monday, ushering in sunshine that was as bright as the scoring during the first round of stroke play in the 117th U.S. Amateur Championship. The world’s finest amateurs, 312 in all, were split over the two courses on Monday. Here are some observations to help tell the stories of the day.
Good Vibes for Nos. 7-9
The strongest field in amateur golf boasts plenty of star power, but one group was a cut above the rest. The players who are Nos. 7-9 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™ – Norman Xiong, Doug Ghim and Cameron Champ – were a collective 9 under par in their rounds at Riviera. Xiong led the way with a 6-under 64, Ghim carded a 67 and Champ came in with a 70. Each player entered the week having captured a significant title in the past month: Xiong won the Western Amateur on Aug. 5, Ghim won the Pacific Coast Amateur on July 21 and Champ won the Trans-Miss Amateur on July 13. As the field jockeys for position, these players have to like where they stand.
Rough Start, Good Recovery
On the first tee at Riviera Monday morning, P.J. Samiere, of Kailua, Hawaii, had the honor of striking the first ball at 7 a.m. Perhaps it was a case of nerves or just a poor swing, but the 21-year-old pulled his drive out of bounds into the area where the Fox Sports compound is located this week. He ended up making a triple-bogey 7 on the 509-yard par 4. To his credit, he battled back from the early misstep to play 1 under par the rest of the way, carding a hard-fought, 2-over 72.
Stroke Play vs. Match Play
Eddie Merrins, 85, the longtime professional at Bel-Air Country Club and currently the pro emeritus, competed in four U.S. Amateurs. “In stroke play, you are competing against an invisible opponent in the form of ‘Old Man Par,’ as Bob Jones used to say, and the one who does the best job of that for the week is going to win. Regardless of what your fellow competitor is doing, you’re trying to tune him out.
“When we get to Riviera [for Wednesday’s start of match play], there will be a different psychology,” said Merrins. “It’s like two fighters in the ring, and one’s going to win and the other’s going to lose. I seemed to be able to get in the zone better in match play much more than in stroke play, almost playing over my head. If you have to hole out a shot, you hole out a shot; if you have to make three birdies, you make three birdies. Match play is similar to a tennis match where the psychology changes on every shot.”
For more on Merrins and Bel-Air, click here.
A Game for a Lifetime
There aren’t many sports where competitors of multiple generations compete on a level playing field. In this year’s U.S. Amateur, the average age of the 312-player field is 22.39, and the oldest player, 64-year-old George Zahringer, of New York, N.Y., is grouped with 19-year-old Logan Lowe, of Grass Valley, Calif., and 21-year-old Raul Pereda De La Huerta, of Mexico, for the first two rounds. While the young bucks managed to outplay their more senior counterpart on Monday at Riviera (69 for Lowe, 70 for Pereda De La Huerta and 75 for Zahringer), we’re not discounting the 2002 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion’s chances just yet. The group tees off at 12:36 p.m. on Tuesday at Bel-Air Country Club, a course that is nearly 500 yards shorter than Riviera, and Zahringer will draw on his vast experience to keep his match-play hopes alive.
Gregory Breaks Opening-Round Habit
Scott Gregory has been disappointed recently in the first rounds of major events. Gregory, of England, was the winner of the 2016 Amateur Championship, conducted by The R&A, and that victory earned him entry into the 2016 Open Championship, as well as this year’s Masters and the U.S. Open. Gregory opened with a 78 at Royal Troon last summer, and missed the cut after a 73 in Round 2. He began his Augusta foray in April with an 82 before settling down to shoot a 75, still missing the cut. At Erin Hills in June, he opened with a 75 and again improved, with a 73, but missed the cut again.
On Monday at Bel-Air, Gregory had another rocky start to a championship he would dearly love to win, playing his opening nine holes, the incoming nine, in 3 over par. But Gregory didn’t wait for the second round to rebound, notching three birdies coming in, including one on his final hole, to post an even-par 70. That score left him inside the top 45 of the 312-player field as the day wound down, with a good chance to make the match-play draw.
Before the championship, Gregory, 22, said, “I can’t think of anything I want more than the U.S. Am. That means I’d have them both [the U.S. Amateur and the Amateur Championship titles]. How many people have done that?” For more about Gregory, click here.
Bel-Air’s Tight, Testing Finish
After playing practice rounds on Riviera and Bel-Air, 2014 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Scott Harvey declared the incoming side at Bel-Air the toughest test of the four nines, even though it is by far the shortest at 3,362 yards.
The course statistics are bearing out his prediction. The par-34 nine winds through narrow canyons on the side of the Santa Monica Mountains, and length means little. The nine is playing to a scoring average of 37.28, more than three strokes over par, while the next-toughest side – the front at Riviera – is more than 200 yards longer and playing 2.76 strokes over its par of 34. The toughest of the holes for the day at Bel-Air is the 230-yard, par-3 13th, on which the field is averaging 3.61 strokes, with only five birdies, 73 bogeys to just 66 pars, nine double bogeys and three “others.”