California State Am: Nasser Defeats Gilchrist for Title
PEBBLE BEACH, June 24 - Baby steps. That's what Jordan Nasser called his golf progression during the past few years, a series of baby steps. Today the 22-year-old USC senior from Anaheim Hills took a giant step when he won the 95th California Amateur Championship by defeating 34-year-old Jeff Gilchrist of Carmichael, 3 & 2 in their 36-hole championship match at historic Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Nasser built a 5-up lead after 19 holes against Gilchrist, a reinstated amateur who was medalist here 10 years ago, but then had to hang on as Gilchrist made an impressive charge. Ultimately, the deficit proved to be too great for Gilchrist to overcome but he gave Nasser and his followers plenty to worry about.
The morning offered few clues as to how dramatic the ending would be. After the players halved the first five holes, Nasser won the 500-yard sixth hole with a birdie 4. Gilchrist squared the match with a par 4 on the treacherous eighth, but Nasser regained the lead with a par 4 on the 10th hole, the last of a stretch of three fierce holes that play alongside and over the ocean.
Nasser then chipped in for a birdie 2 on the 12th hole, extended the lead to 3 up with a par 4 on the 15th hole and won the famed 18th hole with a par 5 to take what appeared to be a commanding lead (no golfer in recent memory has come from 4 down after 18 to win the championship, although Gary Vanier came close in 1999 before falling in overtime to Tim Hogarth).
After the first hole, many thought they'd be heading home early but Nasser knew better. "My dad (who was his caddie all week) and I agreed that we would treat it as starting a new match, all square," explained Nasser.
It proved to be a tough beginning. Nasser blocked his drive on the 376-yard hole under a tree, hit a tree with his second shot and flew his approach to the back fringe, 39 feet above the hole. Gilchrist split the center with his tee ball, left his approach 40 feet below the hole, and lagged his putt to within three feet of the flagstick. Nasser then drained the long putt, which had 15 feet of break, and Gilchrist missed his short par putt to lose the hole and fall 5 down.
Gilchrist refused to fold, even when Nasser followed up by rolling in a 12-foot birdie putt on the next hole (Gilchrist answered with his own birdie). "I expected him to make the putt on the first hole," said Gilchrist, "because that's how I always think. I told my dad (who was his caddie for the day) that I couldn't afford to lose another hole. I had to stay positive and keep chipping away."
Gilchrist did exactly that. When the course turned towards the ocean, he won the par-5 sixth with a birdie and the par-4 eighth and ninth with pars as Nasser put his approach on No. 8 into a greenside bunker and yanked his 3-iron approach on No. 9 off a cart path into rough to the left of the green.
As they headed to the back nine, Gilchrist had drawn within 2 down, but that was a close at he could get. After both players missed makeable birdie putts on No. 11, Nasser yanked his tee shot on the 12th hole into deep rough 30 yards left of the green, while Gilchrist's tee ball came up short in the bunker in front of the green. Nasser deftly executive his long pitch shot to within two feet of the hole, but Gilchrist left his explosion shot in the bunker, ultimately making bogey 4 ("a bad shot," Gilchrist would later charcterize it).
Nasser immediately gave that hole back on the 13th when he three-putted from four feet above the hole (his third putt horseshoed and stayed out). "I thought that if I had made that first putt, it would have been tough for him to come back," said Nasser, "but I kind of gave him new life. Then my dad reminded me that I was still 2 up and had played well on the last few holes all week, so I just re-focused and kept trying to make good swings."
Nasser regained his three-hole lead when Gilchrist three putted the 15th hole from 25 feet. Pars on No. 16 closed out the match. "I wasn't really playing that bad," said Nasser later, "but Jeff was playing great golf and I had just enough of a cushion to hold on."
Nasser, an economics major at USC who failed to make match play in 2004, hadn't won a tournament since his junior days in 2002, became the first Trojan to win this even since Nick Jones in 2000. California Golf Association President Bill Cunerty, a former (and passionate) Trojan, refereed the afternoon portion of the match.
"To win on this golf course was really awesome," said Nasser after the match had finished. "The course was in great shape and I can't even describe how beautiful it is up here. This was a wonderful experience and I'll remember it for the rest of my life."
For Nasser and his family, the week had extra meaning from the beginning. "This was a tournament I really wanted to win for my grandfather," said Nasser later. "He died three weeks ago and had hoped to be here. I saw him on the day he died and he knew I was going to play here so he told me to follow my dreams."
Nasser's win was a true family affair. His dad, Burhan, was on the bag for all nine rounds ("that was so special for me," said Jordan several times), and his mother, Mary Beth, walked every step of the way. And, somewhere, Vade Rankin (Mary Beth's father) was watching, cheering and singing "Fight On."
95th California Amateur Championship
At Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pebble Beach, CA
6,833 yards, par 72
Championship Match (36 holes);
Jordan Nasser, Anaheim Hills, d. Jeff Gilchrist, Carmichael, 3 & 2