U.S. Junior: Medalist Sean Crocker fights his way to quarterfinals
THE WOODLANDS, Texas (July 24, 2014) – Eight players remain in the hunt at The Club at Carlton Woods’ Nicklaus Course to become the 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur champion. It’s clear from the depth of their talent, the hot, humid weather and the demands of this 7,000-yard-plus course that the winner will need his game and his endurance at peak levels.

In contrast to Thursday morning’s round of 32, in which only one of 16 matches extended to the 18th hole, five of eight matches in the afternoon went the distance, or more.

Stroke play co-medalist Sean Crocker, of Zimbabwe, continued his fine play with a hard-fought 20-hole victory over good friend Sahith Theegala, of Chino Hills, Calif. The two players, who live about an hour apart from each other in the Los Angeles area, had a seesaw match that saw Crocker take a 3-up lead through four holes only to have Theegala win three out of the next four, including an eagle-2 on the 273-yard, par-4 sixth hole, to pull back to all square.

While Crocker won Nos. 10 and 11 to regain a 2-up advantage, Theegala squared the match again with wins on the 13th and 18th holes. When Theegala bogeyed the par-4 second hole (the 20th of the match), Crocker advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time in his junior career.

In the quarterfinals, he will face a formidable opponent and home-state favorite William Zalatoris, of Plano, Texas. Playing in his fifth career U.S. Junior Amateur, Zalatoris knew not to panic when he found himself 3 down through five holes in his round-of-16 match against Will Dickson.

“I learned how to spell patience today,” said Zalatoris. “I’ve been in scenarios where you’re down big and you just never know. I could tell when I won five holes in a nine-hole stretch that he was starting to get a little impatient himself, so I made sure I stuck to my game and stayed with the process. It was a fun day. This is what you live for.”

On the same side of the match-play bracket as Crocker and Zalatoris, another quarterfinal pits Will Grimmer, of Cincinnati, against Curtis Luck, of Australia. Grimmer, who is having an outstanding summer in which he qualified for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, nearly won the Ohio State Amateur and is already exempt for next month’s U.S. Amateur, was forced to play past the 16th hole for the first time in three rounds of match play.

“It’s the nature of match play that this morning I played phenomenally and so did the other kid, and then this afternoon we both kind of played poorly,” said Grimmer. “The greens were definitely firmer and faster, and the balls were running out more because of the heat, and so I have to think that through tomorrow and make those adjustments between morning and afternoon.”

Luck had the least stressful day of the quarterfinalists, closing out his first opponent on the 16th hole and then defeating Joshua McCarthy, of Danville, Calif., 5 and 4. The 17-year-old Luck, who is enjoying his first year as part of the Australian national team, was helped by having teammate and round-of-64 competitor Ryan Ruffels on his bag for both of Thursday’s matches.

“I played much better this afternoon than this morning,” he said. “It’s very relaxing having someone you know on the bag. I definitely play better when I have a friend, more than anything, as a caddie. It’s more about having a good chat between shots and just keeping my mind away from golf when I’m not actually over the ball.”

All of the top four seeds from stroke play are still alive in the championship. In addition to Crocker (1) and Grimmer (4), No. 2 seed Sam Horsfield, of England, advanced after a tense 1-up victory over Zach Murray, of Australia, while No. 3 seed Davis Riley, of Hattiesburg, Miss., overcame a slow start to defeat Aaron DeNucci, of Clive, Iowa, 2 and 1. Horsfield will face Andreas Halvorsen, of Norway, who made it to match play as the 58th seed but is showing he has the game to compete with the best juniors in the country.

Riley, the 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur runner-up, was 3 down through four holes and had to gather himself for a comeback.

“I just told myself to gut it out and really fight hard through that stretch, and I did that,” said Riley, who didn’t take a lead in his match against DeNucci until the 16th hole. Riley would desperately like to keep on winning to erase last year’s stinging defeat to Scottie Scheffler.

“I definitely want a little revenge this year, get myself back in that position and then finish it a little better than I did last year,” he said.

To do it, he’ll have to get past Andy Zhang, of the People’s Republic of China, in the quarterfinal round. Zhang led for most of the day but had tense moments down the stretch when he lost the 16th and 17th holes to see his 2-up lead evaporate heading to the dramatic par-5 18th.

“My heart was beating about 500 times a minute,” said Zhang about standing on the 18th tee. “But I was able to make a good swing, then I hit my second shot on the green and was able to two-putt for birdie and the win.”

Just like today, two rounds of match play are again scheduled for Friday. Unlike today, however, when the field was whittled down from 32 players to eight, there will only be two finalists still in the race for the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship trophy by the end of Friday.

The quarterfinals begin at 7:30 a.m. CDT, with the two semifinal matches following at 12:45 p.m. and 1 p.m. CDT. Live scoring for all matches will be available at the link below.

-photo courtesy of USGA

ABOUT THE U.S. Junior Amateur

While it is not the oldest competition, the U.S. Junior Amateur is considered the premier junior competition, having been around since 1948. The event is open to male golfers who have not reached their 19th birthday prior to the close of competition and whose USGA Handicap Index does not exceed 6.4. The U.S. Junior is one of 13 national championship conducted annually by the USGA, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.

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