Editors Note: Story by Alex Podlogar, Pinehurst Resort & Country Club with permission
VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, NC (June 29, 2016) -- A year ago, no one had played better in the North & South Amateur than George Cunningham – until the championship match.
That’s when Cunningham ran into Sean Walsh, who found a way to match Cunningham shot-for-shot before finally pulling away, dashing the medalist’s dreams of finishing what he started.
A year later, now it’s Cunningham’s chance to play spoiler.
The 2015 North & South runner-up made three straight birdies in the middle of his round to recover from an early 2-down deficit to advance Wednesday to the Round of 16 in 116th North & South Amateur, where he’ll face 2016 medalist Stephen Franken.
In a performance Cunningham finds familiar, N.C. State’s Franken has been the championship’s best player, finishing as the lone player under par after stroke play before dismantling the 32nd seed, Cameron John, of Australia, 5 & 4 on Pinehurst No. 2.
“I was a lot more solid today,” Franken said of his play, which included two birdies, an eagle on the 5th and no bogeys. “I really kept it in the right spots today. I felt like I played pretty similar to the last two days, but I definitely putted a lot better.”
But now he’ll have to contend with Cunningham, whose game is rounding into form at Pinehurst after a college season at Arizona nearly lost completely to injury. Cunningham competed in only three events this year, playing just nine rounds. Three of those nine rounds, though, were under par.
And while Cunningham only hit eight of a possible 28 fairways during stroke play, he found his driver in match play. Back at Pinehurst where he came so close to winning, Cunningham – the only player to qualify for match play at the North & South in both 2015 and 2016 – feels like it’s all coming back.
“Knowing I made it to the finals last year just gives me so much confidence,” he said. “I haven’t been playing well, but coming back here, I can remember the shots. I know I’ve hit them before and that I can do it again. I know I have those shots into these holes.”
Cunningham was down two through six holes to Ryan Troyer, the last player to make it into the North & South field after playing in the pre-tournament qualifier. But a bogey on the 8th hole was still good enough for Cunningham to win the hole, and then birdies on 9, 10 and 11 quickly put Cunningham back up two holes. The pair traded holes through 15, but a par on 17 helped Cunningham, happily finding fairways again, to a 3 & 1 victory.
“It helps being in the fairway,” Cunningham quipped. “It’s a different golf course from there.”
The Round of 16 and the championship’s quarterfinals will be played on Thursday. The semifinals and championship will be on Friday.
There won’t be a Pinehurst connection on the final two days, however. Pinecrest star A.J. Beechler led Thomas Walsh 1-up when Beechler lipped out a birdie try on the 17th green, but a bogey on 18 and a slick Walsh birdie on the 19th hole – the par-4 1st – gave Walsh an unlikely victory.
“I don’t know what just happened,” said Walsh, who lingered on the first green to try to soak in the moment. “A.J., just a junior in high school – gosh, I wish I could have been where he is already. What a fighter. I hope he keeps his head up.”
Fellow Pinehurst resident Josh Martin, who won the Donald Ross Junior three times, also lost in the Round of 32, falling to fellow North Carolina teammate William Register despite making a stirring comeback. Martin, who was 4 down through 12, won the 13th, then one-hopped a chip in for par from behind the 14th green to have the hole. Martin then won the next two holes with pars to trim the deficit to 1 down, but Register managed to hold on.
David Kocher, who won the 2014 North & South Junior and recently reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship at Winged Foot, had the easiest day, beating Cole Ray 8 & 6.
Nick Hardy, who made the cut at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and shot 68 on the final day, also advanced, defeating Jonathan Brightwell 4 & 3. Hardy also played in the U.S. Open at Oakmont a couple of weeks ago.
In the championship’s biggest upset, East Carolina’s Tim Conover clipped No. 2 seed T.J. McDaniel 2 & 1 to move on to the Round of 16, which begins with matches at 7 a.m.
The Men’s 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. The winners now serve as legends in the game – Walter Travis, Francis Ouimet, Billy Joe Patton, Jack Nicklaus, Curtis Strange and Davis Love III, among others – and continues to draw the best in amateur golf circles.