PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — No.2 world-ranked Maverick McNealy is right where everyone thought he’d be. Matt Cohn, meanwhile, will have a shot at what would be one of the greatest upsets in NCGA history.
McNealy, the No.1 seed, and Cohn, the No.7 seed, will square off in Friday’s 36-hole finale of this week’s NCGA Amateur Match Play Championship after advancing through Thursday’s semifinals on another breathtaking day at par-72 Spyglass Hill. McNealy moved on with a 4 and 3 victory over No.28 Shintaro Ban, while the No.7 seed Cohn dispatched No.14 Scott Mitchell, 4 and 2.
The heavy favorite all week, McNealy finally—albeit for only a fleeting moment—showed some signs of vulnerability in his match versus Ban. For the first time in four matches, the Stanford junior didn’t win the first hole, as the two halved with pars. A few holes later on the par-3 5th, McNealy three-putted for a bogey while Ban carded a par.
The bogey was McNealy’s first hole played over par since a double-bogey on the 16th in Tuesday’s stroke play qualifying round. It also marked the first time that he had trailed in a match.
“The putts just didn’t drop in as often today,” said McNealy, who prior to the miscue had played a tough Spyglass Hill course bogey-free for 83 straight holes. “We both missed some putts early that didn’t drop.”
A sophomore at UNLV, Ban would only get to enjoy the lead for one hole. On the par-5 7th, the 2014 San Francisco City champion mishit his approach shot, leaving him 40 yards short of the green. Ban’s miscue led to a bogey, while McNealy made par.
“I felt like if I just played my game, I’d have a chance. It’s match play, and anything can happen,” Ban said.
A hole later on the 8th, McNealy sank his birdie putt and was off and running again. With another birdie on the 10th, his lead went to 2-up. On the par-5 11th, it went to 3-up when Ban carded a bogey after hitting his approach shot into the greenside bunker.
“I made more mistakes on the back-nine,” Ban said. “I just tried to tell myself, don’t give up until it’s over.”
Ban did his best to keep up from there, but McNealy sealed the deal with one more birdie putt on the par-3 15th. Entering Friday’s finals, McNealy will be an eye-popping 25-under through 92 holes.
“I played pretty well coming in,” said McNealy, who had Stanford teammate Brad Knox on the bag as caddie. “Close matches might not as seem as fun but that’s how you get better. I was definitely tested in the middle of the round, and I felt I responded solidly there.”
Cohn, a 34-year-old tutor and college admissions consultant in San Francisco, was solid himself. He’d take a 4-up lead over Mitchell through the first five holes thanks in part to birdies on No.2 and No.5. Mitchell, a home-schooled high school senior, managed to cut the deficit to 2-up with a par on the 10th, but Cohn never again budged. He’d close out the win with pars on the 16th and 17th holes.
For Cohn, it’s his first trip to the finals. He’d fall in last year’s semifinals to eventual champion Matthew Seramin. On his way to the semifinals, he knocked out last year’s marquee player, Corey Pereira.
“I did not want to lose in the semifinals again,” said Cohn, who boasts a 10-3 career record in the match play portion of the championship. “There was a strong push not to lose on Thursday again.”
A former collegiate player at the University of Oklahoma, Cohn made his push to the finals thanks in part to some dazzling bunker play. In his 19th hole win over Jon Peterson in the morning quarterfinals, he went 5-for-5 in sand saves. Against Mitchell, he came up with another big sand save on the 14th to keep his lead at 2-up.
His reward is now a match against the highest world-ranked player to ever compete in an NCGA championship.
“I understand the position I’m in and who I’m playing. If I win it’ll be an incredible honor to win and beat him. If I lose, it’ll be an honor to have played him in the finals,” Cohn said. “I couldn’t be more excited for it. Either way, it’ll be one of my most memorable days on a golf course. It’s going to be fun.”