San Francisco, Calif. (August 22, 2007) – Enjoying a leisurely breakfast while awaiting the match play schedule Wednesday morning, Chris Kirk’s cell phone rang. Friend and fellow qualifier Colt Knost alerted him that he had 20 minutes to get to the first tee.
Worse, the 22-year-old Kirk planned on getting in a full warm-up because he hadn’t felt confident in his ball-striking. Instead, he hurried through a routine that include all of 10 balls, hastened putting and a jaunt to the first tee. There he met his opponent, 19-year-old Joseph Bramlett, entrenched as a junior member of The Olympic Club. More than that, Bramlett would be no pushover. The local favorite from nearby Saratoga knew the course and had the luxury of sleeping in his own bed this week. He was coming off a NCAA Championship title in his freshman year at Stanford, and festooned with awards, the most prominent a Second Team All-American honor and recipient of the NCAA All-Freshman Team.
Certainly Kirk, no slouch himself, has been decorated appropriately through his playing days at the University of Georgia: two-time All-American, an NCAA Championship title of his own in 2005, SEC Player of the Year in 2006, named to the USA Walker Cup team, and maybe most impressive, this year’s prestigious Ben Hogan Award winner for being the top college and amateur golfer.
Another comparison? Both players were appearing in their fourth U.S. Amateur. The two sinewy golfers matched up well.
However, we all know the adage: competition is settled on the playing field and not on paper. Though it may not have been a stretch to say that Kirk may have preferred a hearty game of rocks, papers and scissors through the first nine holes on the Lake Course. That’s because Kirk had trouble finding fairways or greens in regulation. He grinded. Hard.
"I definitely struggled with the ball-striking today," said Kirk, prefacing the comment by bluntly describing his overall play with a spicy four-letter word. Overall, he had found just six fairways in regulation and 9-of-19 greens.
The same couldn’t be said of Bramlett. Except for a few critical mistakes at the wrong time, his ball-striking lifted him, which led to 10-of-15 greens and 12-of-19 greens. Bramlett easily could have taken control on the front side, but a balky flatstick led to 17 putts on the first nine. He allowed Kirk to square the match on the par-4 sixth when Bramlett’s 4-footer to save par caught the inside edge of the hole. And when he needed to answer Kirk, he couldn’t. The next hole Kirk capped off a 8-foot comebacker, resulting in his first lead, while Bramlett missed from 5 feet.
It seemed Bramlett finally gained traction on the 12th. Kirk two-putted from 12 feet and Bramlett guided in a 6-footer that gave him his first advantage in seven holes. Bramlett won the 13th, too, when Kirk couldn’t get up and down from the right rough.
"Of course I was feeling good about it," said a crestfallen Bramlett. "But you can’t ever really get comfortable."
That foreshadowed what was to come. On the next hole, Kirk sliced the deficit in half with a 40-foot birdie putt that sucked away any momentum Bramlett had. A few minutes later the match was square again, this time when Bramlett three-putted from 18 feet.
Prior to catching Bramlett, Kirk kept telling himself to stay positive. "I feel with my game, I can reel off a bunch of birdies," he said, saving his most important one for the 19th hole.
The 17th proved to be melodramatic. Bramlett’s ball tangled in deep greenside rough, he couldn’t get his club face through the heavy grass with his swing. The ball might have moved a couple of inches. Bramlett took a step back and stood arms akimbo. It led to a double bogey, although Kirk won the hole with bogey.
"It was sitting in the grass and there’s a lot of luck involved," said Bramlett. "I didn’t get under it. I just didn’t get down under it."
Needing only to halve 18, Kirk found himself on the receiving end of his own bad break. He pushed his approach shot that plugged in a right greenside bunker. His first attempt to get out was repelled by the lip. He had been aiming 10-15 left of the hole, he said. Kirk stood motionless with arms folded en route to a double bogey. Bramlette’s par forced the extra hole.
"It was buried," said Kirk. "I knew I wouldn’t get out of the bunker."
Despite a modest gallery following Bramlett, Kirk stayed resilient, relying on experience. Bramlett pushed his drive on No. 19, the par-5 first hole, far right and down a moderate hill. Kirk found the first cut. Bramlett muttered to himself after sending his approach right of the green. He ultimately couldn’t get up and down, bowing to Kirk’s 3-footer for birdie and the victory.
Just off the first green, Kirk intimated that he didn’t feel any anxiety if he was an underdog. The home-course advantage, in his mind, didn’t mean much except for "it helps being comfortable on tee shots."
So now a content Kirk moves into the second round, a reprieve for missing the cut the last three years. Notorious for eschewing full warm-ups, and knowing how superstitious golfers can be, maybe Kirk has found the missing ingredient to his match-play prowess.
amateurgolf.com Notes: Haag Loses a Tough One:
Olympic Club member Randy Haag wanted very badly to take a shot at the US Amateur at his home club, and he got his chance via a qualifier at nearby Peninsula CC.
Today, he faced Derek Fathauer of Jensen Beach, Florida (he and his twin brother Daryl both qualified for the US Amateur) and looked at putting the match away after making birdies at the par 3 eighth, the tricky par 4 ninth, and the dogleg left par 4 tenth.
Fathauer roared back with a birdie at No. 12 after both players tied No. 11 with pars. Haag again got a 1-up advantage at No. 15, a short par 3, but Fathauer quickly erased that lead with a birdie at the 607 yard, par 5 sixteenth. Both players managed to par the treacherous 17th, which plays as a par 4 for USGA events. Fathauer won the match on No. 18 when Haag made double bogey.