Sam Stevens gets redemption at Kansas Amateur Match Play
2015 Kansas Amateur champ Sam Stevens (KGA photo)
2015 Kansas Amateur champ Sam Stevens (KGA photo)

WICHITA, Kan. — After two consecutive heart-breaking losses in the Kansas Amateur Match Play finals, Sam Stevens prepared his game, his strategy and his mind for a championship this year at his boyhood golf course, Wichita Country Club. On Sunday his golf skills and mental toughness propelled him to his first Kansas Amateur championship title in an unbelievably competitive see-saw battle with Matt Green, a collegian of impressive talent as a Kansas State junior.

Stevens, an Oklahoma State sophomore, began the week-long championship with “statement” rounds on Tuesday and Wednesday, the stroke play days. His 11-under par total of 131 gave him the #1 seed as the medalist, four strokes better than two others at 135, one of whom was Matt Green. The only reason Green was the #3 seed was that #2 went to Conrad Roberts based on his earlier finish. Both Stevens and Green marched through the match play bracket knowing that the two Big 12 Conference golfers could meet in the finals. Stevens had his toughest early matches against other Wichita Country Club members in Pete Krsnich and Christian Spencer. Green had to take out another Wichita CC member in Max Lazzo in the semifinals. After five match wins the hole-by-hole review of the two finalists showed that both Stevens and Green could make a lot of birdies, maybe an eagle or two, and that the finals could be very exciting. They did not disappoint.

Both players birdied the opening hole for a halve and those few spectators arriving for the 7:30 a.m. start knew they were about to witness a classic battle.

Stevens drew “first blood” with a birdie on the par five #4 hole because Green’s errant drive found the base of a tree that required him to punch out using a left-handed stroke with an inverted wedge. They played “defense” with each other over the next four holes and stood on the 8th tee with Stevens still 1 up. The 8th hole was a rarity in the match – a halve with bogeys – when both players hit their tee shots over the green and Green made a bogey-saving 15-footer.

Stevens doubled his lead to 2 up on the 9th hole by getting onto the putting surface after two big shots. His 12 foot, downhill eagle putt won the hole over Green’s easy birdie.

For the next seven holes on the back nine the two again matched each other blow for blow. #12 was halved with birdies, the second such time in the match, and amazingly the 15th hole was halved with eagles! Realistically, the 15th hole played like a long par three with the tees intentionally set at 255 yards. Normally, the hole plays from 393 yards. Both players found the putting green surface with their tee shots and were able to make 15 to 20 foot putts.

#16 was halved with birdies which was the third time for that feat.

On #17, a picturesque par three with water surrounding most of the putting green, Stevens made a his second bogey of the round (but his last one of the day!) and lost his first hole of the day to Green. The duo walked over to the 18th tee with Stevens holding a slim 1 up advantage. As to par Stevens was 6-under par and Green was 5-under par. The final hole of the morning round was halved with pars even though both golfers had birdie tries from less than ten feet.

After the 90 minute lunch break, the match resumed at the #1 tee. A much larger crowd had assembled to watch what would prove to be the best display of championship golf in a Kansas Amateur final in the last 20 years. The character of the match was about to change from a “cautious” bob-and-weave early round fight to a full-blown battle of bombs from the tee to sabre-like slashes through turf.

After halving the first three holes with pars, the two again halved another hole with birdies at the 4th hole – now having done that four times. At #5, Green made his move from a shortened tee on the par four and using the honor he drove straight for the putting green on the dogleg left hole. His drive landed on the putting green and rolled to the back fringe. Stevens played it safe down the fairway where he would have a wedge to the back right hole location. Stevens safe approach was not good enough to counter the easy birdie to come from Green. Now after 23 holes the match was all square.

#6 was halved with pars and then the winning volleys began:

-Stevens won #7 with a birdie three from 15 feet to go 1 up.
-Green won #9 with a birdie four after Stevens missed the green in two and was unable to get up and down, with the match now back to all square.
-Green won #10 with a birdie from about one foot, taking a 1 up lead over Stevens – his first lead of the match.
-Stevens won #11 with a par when Green misjudged the distance and wind to the par three and his tee shot found the water hazard, putting the match back to all square.
-Green won #12 by launching a drive over a row of trees on a line straight to the putting green. The blow measured 375 yards at the point it came to rest on the putting green from which a two-putt birdie followed and a return to Green’s 1 up lead.
-Stevens won #13 with another par after Green put his ball into the left lateral water hazard off the tee. To his credit, Green missed his par putt leaving it on the lip of the hole. The match was all square again.
-Green won #14 by bombing another drive to within 60 yards of the putting green, meaning the drive was 333 yards into a slight breeze. His wedge approach stopped less than two feet from the hole. Green’s 1 up lead was restored and only four holes remained.
-Stevens won #15 by sinking a swift, downhill 15 foot putt. Match all square again!
-Stevens won #16 with a conceded eagle after Green’s second shot approach was too far left and it got the upper lip of the greenside bunker. The bunker shot came out hot and Green was unable to make what would have been a miracle birdie. Stevens now had a 1 up lead, something he had not had for 10 holes.

Eight consecutive holes saw the match status change. The tension in the obvious Stevens-favorite crowd wasn’t felt by the object of their interest. Stevens walked to the 17th tee confidently to find the tee markers moved to a “finesse” distance of 128 yards to a tight, left hole location. Both players found the putting surface for potential birdies, but neither could convert.

So, just as it was a few hours before, the two worthy opponents journeyed to the 18th tee with Stevens possessing a 1 up advantage, but this time Green would need a win to extend the match into extra holes. Driving first, Stevens let his ball leak a little to the right but the ball found a playable open spot in the rough about 190 yards from the hole. Green made another one of his now familiar monstrous swings and sent his ball on a fairway “fly-over” for a text book landing in the left side of the fairway for a perfect angle to the right side hole location. Stevens played to the green first and possessed of extreme confidence he willed his ball to the putting green leaving himself an slightly uphill, straight putt from 18 feet. Green’s approach was equally bold and right at the hole. It came up a little shorter than intended, leaving Green a birdie putt of 20 feet. Putting first and knowing he needed to make the putt, Green send his final hope on its way. It missed, but a par four was on the card.

Sam Stevens was about to finish play of his 152nd hole in six consecutive days at Wichita Country Club. He had a championship winning putt, in fact, two-putt, that he had probably made hundreds of times before. Without hesitation Stevens assessed the line, set up to the ball and smoothly putted it on its way to the hole. It stopped an inch or so short of the hole as if to proclaim “1 up is just as good as 2 up”!

At the awards presentation Sam Stevens explained that he felt no pressure in today’s final match. As he said, “I could win and become the fourth member of my family to claim this title, or I could lose and set a record as the first to be runner-up three years in a row!”

ABOUT THE Kansas Amateur Match Play

36 holes of individual stroke play qualifying to determine low 64 players advancing to single elimination match play bracket. Any player that is not exempt from regional qualifying must go through one of the five regional qualifying sites or the second chance qualifier to advance to the championship. Open to any male amateur golfer with an active USGA/GHIN Handicap Index through a KGA member club.

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