PEBBLE BEACH, CA (August 18, 2016) -- Just a few years ago, fellow San Jose residents Eddy Lai and Shintaro Ban were playing together in Junior Tour of Northern California events.
Now, the duo will compete for one of the biggest amateur prizes in the state.
On Thursday, Lai, a 17-year-old senior at Bellarmine High, and Ban, a junior at UNLV, secured their spots in the finals of this week’s 113th annual NCGA Amateur Match Play Championship with another set of wins in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
The No. 1 seeded Lai, who’s already committed to UCLA, moved on with a 4 and 2 win over No.4 Greg Gildea, while Ban, the No. 2 seed, advanced following a 2 and 1 victory over No. 3 seed Viraat Badhwar. It is believed to be the first time in championship history that all four top seeds made it to the semifinals.
“It’s crazy. I’ve never had to play this many good rounds in a row,” said Lai, who won the 2015 NCGA Junior Championship at Spyglass Hill. “I’m just really happy. I look forward to playing well tomorrow too.”
After knocking out No. 25 Jeff Gilchrist, who at 44 was the oldest player in the field, in the quarterfinals, Lai had to get by Gildea. He’d take a 1-up lead with a birdie on the par-5 1st and never looked back.
By the time the two reached 13th, Lai’s lead was 3-up. Gildea, who plays at Fresno State, tried his best to hang in there but never could make a dent in the lead. It didn’t help that Gildea was fatigued from a staph infection he picked up on Monday.
Or that Lai has been on top of his game. In each of his last three matches, Lai has never trailed.
“Having won the NCGA Junior here, I know some of the nuances of Spyglass now. It fits my eye,” said Lai, who with a win in the finals would become the youngest champion in the event’s long history. “I’m also playing more conservatively. The last few tournaments I played in, I was being aggressive. This week, I’m staying within myself more.”
Ban, who in June won this year’s California Amateur Championship, has also been in a groove. In his 1-up win over No. 23 Ryan Maund in the quarterfinals, Ban never trailed. He never trailed against Badhwar either after taking a 1-up lead with a birdie on the 1st.
Badhwar, a junior at Stanford, did manage to get the match back to all-square through 11, but Ban sank a 9-foot birdie putt on the par-3 12th to re-take a 1-up lead. Another birdie on the 16th gave the 20-year-old Ban a 2-up lead before the duo halved the 17th with pars.
“I’ve struggled a little bit since the California Amateur, so it feels good to have grinded through the bad parts,” said Ban, who is competing in his last event of the summer. “Against Viraat, we kept going back-and-forth. I just told myself to keep things simple. My game would fall apart at times, but that’s just golf.”
Badhwar had been hoping to make it two titles in a row for the Cardinal. World No. 1 ranked amateur Maverick McNealy, whom Badhwar paired with at last year’s inaugural U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship, was both medalist and champion last year.
McNealy, who missed the cut at the U.S. Amateur, and Badhwar exchanged texts during the week. McNealy even gave Badhwar his yardage book from last year to use as a guide.
“I played pretty solid. Shintaro just made more putts than me. He putted very well,” Badhwar said. “Maverick’s yardage notes were handy. I just didn’t execute the shots as well as he did.”
With a win in the final, Ban would join an elite group of 10 players to have won both the California Amateur and NCGA Amateur Match Play Championship in the same year. The list includes Jack Neville (1913), Charles Seaver (1933), Michael Brannan (1976) and the most recent player to accomplish the feat, PGA Tour member Spencer Levin (2004).
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Ban, whose network of friends intertwines with Lai’s friends. “I love Eddy.”
The 36-hole finale will begin at 7 a.m.