VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. (7-2-2015) – Nobody had a tougher day over two matches than George Cunningham.
Unless you count Henry Do.
Cunningham, the top seed after stroke play in the 115th North & South Amateur, needed all 18 holes in both of his matches on Pinehurst No. 2 on Thursday, edging both 16th seed Andrew Novak and upstart Chun an Yu 1-up to advance to Friday’s semifinals.
“I definitely had to work for it,” said Cunningham, the only player Thursday to play the 18th twice.
While his match with Novak was up and down, Cunningham never trailed, but never wrestled away control until a birdie on the 17th hole. A matching par on 18 was enough to close out Novak, who had survived a four-hole, six-man playoff late Wednesday to earn the final match play seed in the championship.
The afternoon round against Yu was a different story. Cunningham trailed three times, only to come back with birdies on 7, 9 and 11 to square the match. Finally, with a birdie on 14, Cunningham took the lead on the reigning Western Junior champion, but still had to answer the 16-year-old bomber, making a 7-footer for birdie to halve the 16th before holing a slick downhill 4-footer on 17 for par to stay 1-up.
A par on 18 was finally enough to vanquish Yu, who wowed North & South spectators with his length off the tee.
“He just kept coming and coming,” Cunningham said of Yu, who only recently moved to the United States from Taiwan. “We both played really, really well. It was a fight the entire way.”
While it was a tough day, it was still a triumphant one for Cunningham. The same, though, could not be said for Do, or for fellow North Carolina Tar Heels golfer Ben Griffin.
While the third-seeded Griffin beat Dylan Meyer comfortably in the Round of 16, Do lost 5 & 4 to South Carolina golfer Keenan Huskey. Do was able to take part in the quarterfinals anyway, picking up Griffin’s bag to caddie for his teammate in the afternoon.
Unfortunately, Do would become the only player to lose twice on Thursday.
Griffin appeared on the verge of a storybook comeback against Gonzaga’s Sean Walsh, rallying from 4 down after nine holes to square the match after two nifty up-and-downs for pars on 16 and 17. Even after a wayward tee shot on 18, Griffin stood over a tense 4-footer for bogey to halve the 18th, only to see it lip out harshly, whipping around the cup for double bogey and a 1-down loss.
“I just hate it for Ben. He’s a heck of a player,” said a relieved Walsh, who had already put his glove back on and was just steps away from the first tee when Griffin missed. “That’s a tough pin. I’m sure there are a lot of pros who have missed that putt down the stretch on Sundays at the U.S. Open.”
Meanwhile, Ohio State’s Clark Engle continues to make Monday’s opening round on No. 2 appear to be a wild aberration. After rounds of 65 and 70 to follow his opening 78, the second-seeded Engle has been the tournament’s best player, cruising to a 6 & 5 victory over Mario Beltran with four birdies before dropping Huskey 3 & 2 after a brilliant birdie on the 513-yard 16th.
Since opening his second round with two bogeys, Engle has 15 birdies and an eagle on No. 2. Engle had a difficult time trying to explain his incredible play over the last three days.
“I don’t know, I guess it’s playing easier,” a joking Engle said of No. 2, “but I do think everyone is adjusting to (No. 2) better. We know where not to miss it now. That makes it a little easier to get up and down around the greens.
“But come on, it’s still a monster.”
Taylor Hancock, the 13th seed, beat first-round leader and No. 4 seed Chad Merzbacher 4 & 2 in the morning before defeating No. 12 seed Tim Conover 3 & 2 in the quarterfinals. Hancock, a rising senior at North Florida, will face Cunningham in the semifinals, and has found No. 2 fits his game well.
“I’m loving being out here,” he said. “I knew the scores weren’t going to be low out here and that the emphasis is on the short game, and I felt like that could help me. Also, knew it was going to be long, and that was good for me because I am one of the longer hitters. It just sets up well for me as long as I stay patient.
“This is the epitome of a ‘par is a good score’ golf course. Once you try to get aggressive out here, it’s going to bite you.”
The semifinal matches will begin at 7 a.m. and at 7:10 a.m. The championship match is expected to begin at noon. The public is invited to attend and there is no charge for admission.
Story by Alex Podlogar, Pinehurst Resort & Country Club with permission