VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – If you only followed the top half of the North & South field last year, you likely missed Sean Walsh. And he wouldn’t blame you.
“Oh, we made a trip last year,” Walsh said of his first appearance in the North & South. “We didn’t really play golf. I don’t know what that was called.”
A pair of 76s meant Walsh’s trip from the Pacific Northwest was a short one; the Gonzaga golfer didn’t even make the 36-hole cut.
But, even in his first, albeit brief, visit to Pinehurst, Walsh learned something - something very valuable when it comes to golf at Pinehurst.
“It was a lot thinking you could hit a shot like…Say, you have a back-left pin,” Walsh explained. “I learned my lesson very quickly as far as when I came back: if you have a back-left pin, you don’t hit it at the back-left pin."
Walsh took that advice to heart throughout the week on Donald Ross’ legendary Pinehurst No. 2, playing a masterful round of golf to beat George Cunningham 3 & 1 to win the 115th North & South Amateur Championship on Friday afternoon.
Walsh will now join many of the legends of the game who have won the North & South, including Walter Travis, Francis Ouimet, Jack Nicklaus, Curtis Strange and Davis Love III, and will have his name emblazoned in bronze on Pinehurst’s Perpetual Wall in the clubhouse to go with a lifetime locker in the North & South locker room.
“That’s incredible,” Walsh said. “I didn’t even know I’d have a locker until my host family actually told me. It’s incredible, the names up there. The Jack Nicklauses…just all the guys. It’s something I haven’t been able to be a part of before and to be able to be a part of it, it’s something I don’t even really have words for.”
Instead, Walsh let his iron play do the talking. In winning the championship, Walsh, the No. 6 seed after 54 holes of stroke play, prevailed over the tournament’s third, second and finally, the No. 1 seed in Arizona rising sophomore Cunningham.
He did it by taking control of the match early in the back nine, smashing a drive and 3 wood to set up a nifty pitch into the par-5 10th green, resulting in a 3-foot birdie and a 2-up lead. While Cunningham struggled with his short game – he had two chip shots around the green roll back to his feet - Walsh continued to apply pressure.
An approach from the edge of the native rough on the par-4 12th landed 5 feet from the cup, leading to another birdie and a 3-up lead. But it was his play from the bunker right of the 13th fairway that essentially sealed the victory for Walsh.
At 133 yards from the hole, Walsh blasted a lovely, high-arching shot aimed directly at – you guessed it – a back-left pin. But the shot settled softly into the rain-soaked green – earlier, play had been halted for a little over an hour after five holes – and came to rest just 3 feet below the hole.
“Out of the bunker, I had the perfect number,” Walsh said. “I just really trusted it and hit a great shot.”
Cunningham, to his credit, buried a slick downhill putt from off the back fringe for birdie and was able to halve the hole after Walsh’s birdie, but Walsh’s shot was emblematic of the match – every time Cunningham seemed poised to make a move, Walsh had an answer for it.
“When the rain delay (ended) and we came back out, I hit a really good shot on the par-3 (6th), and his was just better,” Cunningham said. “It was just kind of like that for the rest of the round. Every time I’d hit a pretty good shot, his would be better.”
Cunningham made birdie at the par-3 15th to get within 2-down, but made bogey on 17 as rain poured a second time, ceding the match to Walsh.
“Sean just played better than me,” Cunningham said. “It was nothing more than that.”
The North & South Amateur Championship is the longest consecutive-running amateur golf championship in the United States. Over the past century, the best in the golf world have vied for its coveted Putter Boy trophy.
By Alex Podlogar, Pinehurst Resort & Country Club