VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, (Aug. 22, 2008)-- The medalist is gone, as are the former Walker Cuppers. No one who made it as far as the quarterfinals in last year's U.S. Amateur is left in the field.
Still, there is an overwhelming favorite in Korean-born Danny Lee, who moved to New Zealand at age eight and was introduced to golf by his golf coach mom shortly after. In the past month alone, Lee has won the prestigious Western Invitational (after capturing medalist honors) and tied for 20th at a PGA Tour event last weekend.
After qualifying easily for match play, Lee has bludgeoned opponents through three rounds of match play. Morgan Hoffmann was the latest victim, dropping a 4 & 3 decision on the 15th hole Friday in his quarterfinal duel to Lee. That, incidentally, is the farthest anyone, besides David Bartman, has taken Lee in any round of match play. Lee has lost just seven holes thus far and also beat Hoffmann at the Western Amateur.
"He’s just a solid player," said fellow 18-year-old Hoffmann of Saddlebrook, N.J. "You have to hit every fairway, which I didn’t do.
"He’s not going to shoot over par."
If it makes any difference, Lee shot the equivalent of one under par Friday. It should be noted, too, that he did it after injuring his left shoulder on the range while warming up. During his backswing on a shot, the shoulder clicked and caused immense pain.
"I couldn’t move my shoulder," said Lee.
A conference ensued. Lee’s uncle, Rambert Sim, recommended that he withdraw. Lee looked at him bemused as if to say, "Not on your life." So the powers that be wrapped Lee’s shoulder in ice and everyone involved held their collective breath until he got to the first tee.
"The first five holes it hurt to swing," said Lee, who is coming off a brutal three weeks of golf that saw him win the Western, tie for 20th at the PGA Tour Wyndham Championship and essentially play the last six days. He admitted after his victory over Hoffmann that he was exhausted. The U.S. Amateur, as has been said many times before, is perhaps the most gut-wrenching amateur event because it is a test of endurance and mental fortitude.
Lee hasn’t shown the effects of fatigue. He hasn’t taken many tired swings and continues to apply more pressure on opponents than a tourniquet.
His caddie, Bob Scheirer, has been at Pinehurst for 10 years. He was assigned Lee and is amazed at his resilience.
"The mental part of his game," said Scheirer when asked what has impressed him the most. "He’s so mentally strong. There’s a ball in the rough? To him it’s just a ball to hit. When he’s over a putt, he thinks he can make every putt."
Scheirer’s guidance has assumed the role of a figurehead lugging his bags around, although he will share his thoughts on putts. Scheirer said he’s also dumfounded how Lee can be so serious over the ball and then resort to jester the next moment.
Lee inherited his pedigree from his mother, Sujin Sea, a retired golf instructor. When he was 9, while splitting time between New Zealand and Korea, his mom took him under her wing at the driving range she worked at. He hit a couple of balls and loved it. All the while, Lee kept a loose nature as he improved. In the past 10 weeks, he has ascended the ranks of amateur golf faster than anyone expected. He flew from New Zealand to California in May to stay with Rambert, an uncle only in name but more of a family friend, in his home outside of San Diego.
Lee has aspirations to play on the PGA Tour one day. In fact, later this year he intends to go to Qualifying School as an amateur.
First things first.
If he should win the U.S. Amateur, he’d become the youngest winner in history, overshadowing Tiger Woods by six months. It would be ironic because he said Woods was the one who served as inspiration to him. As a spectator, Lee took in the first round at this year’s U.S. Open. He wanted to feel the ambiance and watch from afar as the world’s best players went about their business after he failed to qualify.
Lee will take on fellow youngster Patrick Reed, who topped Canadian Graham Hill 4 & 3 to advance to the semis.
Reed is an incoming freshman at Georgia who survived a 23-hole duel with Brandon Detweiler in the Round of 16 only end his quarterfinal match early.
Reed's future teammate at Georgia, Adam Mitchell, also holds a spot in the semis after topping Charlie Holland 2 & 1 in the quarters.
He had a bit of good fortune along the way.
Mitchell chipped in for birdie at the seventh hole to slow a surging Charlie Holland and later eagled the par-4 11th [by holing an 8-iron, ed.] en route to a 2 & 1 victory. Mitchell will face Drew Kittleson in the first semifinal match on Saturday.
"Definitely you’ve got to have some breaks go your way if you’re going to win any tournament," said Mitchell, 21, of Chattanooga, Tenn., and a senior at the UGA. "You just never know which way a ball will bounce. I certainly had some good bounces today."
Despite winning the first hole, Mitchell admittedly did not come out sharp after winning Thursday’s second- and third-round matches in a combined 29 holes. Through the fourth hole he was 1 down and after the sixth he found himself 2 down.
"I didn't get up and down on six, I was 2 down and really wasn't panicking just yet, but still was a little unnerved," said Mitchell, who won the 50th anniversary Porter Cup in July. "I wasn't happy with myself."
Mitchell was not about to panic, as there remained plenty of holes to swing the match, but his karma was taking a beating when he drove into the rough at the 404-yard, par-4 seventh and pitched out to 40 yards short of the green.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to possibly being 3 down.
"I told my dad I was going to land it just short and it was going to take one hop and roll right to it. And I did it just like I planned. Went right in the middle," said Mitchell of his birdie that won the hole and began a three-hole stretch that swung the lead in his favor for good.
Holland could only control his game and, despite his best efforts, lost the seventh and eighth holes despite pars. He then three-putted the ninth green for a bogey 4.
"I came out playing well, and hit some good shots early on, but then I let it slip there," said Holland, 22, of Dallas and a University of Texas junior who was a third-team All American in 2007. "But Adam made the shots when he needed and that’s what you have to do in order to win."
Holding a 1-up lead going into the 476-yard, par-4 11th hole, Mitchell worked his magic again. Standing over a 152-yard downwind approach shot, Mitchell hit a wedge that started out a little to the right, but then drew back in with the wind.
Thinking he had hit the shot over the green and unable to see the ball land, Mitchell suddenly heard a bunch of yells and applause, which could only mean one thing — eagle on the sixth most difficult hole during match play qualifying. Ben Hogan once referred to the 11th as the most difficult on the course.
"That's something I can take home with me, I guess," Mitchell said. "It's the hardest fairway out there to hit, very narrow and it's slanting to the right."
Holland twice got to within 1 down, but could not trim the deficit any further. Mitchell won the match with par at the par-3 17th.
"Sure, I’m disappointed, but I accomplished my goal, and that was to make match play and see how far I could go," Holland said.
As for Mitchell, he envisioned being in Saturday’s semifinals, not to mention Sunday’s scheduled 36-hole final.
"Oh, without a doubt," he said. "You go into every tournament thinking you have a chance to win, you're not just playing to make the cut or playing to do this, you're playing to win," Mitchell said. "And I was; I saw myself being here."
The final golfer in the semis is Drew Kittleson, 19, of Scottsdale, Ariz., who qualified for the Amateur by making birdie on the last hole of qualifying and then survived a playoff, is two wins away from claiming the Havemeyer Trophy after overcoming his biggest obstacle of the week, dispatching Derek Fathauer of Jensen Beach, Fla., 3 & 2.
Displaying a rather tidy short game on Friday that was sharpened by the challenges of links golf at St. Andrews (which he visited with his Florida State teammates) and elsewhere, Kittleson was able to stave off a late rally by Fathauer, an All-American at Louisville who also reached the quarterfinals last year and made the cut at this year’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Club.
"It was the same (kind of golf)," said Kittleson, who contributed to Florida State’s first Atlantic Coast Conference championship this spring. "Bump and run and chipping from the fairways and stuff like that. … I also putted it a couple times and I think that it was good practice before coming here."
Fathauer, a PING All-American first-team selection, had more practice coming into the quarters than he bargained for. He played 42 holes on Thursday in winning twice, and although he won the first hole against Kittleson, he said he never felt comfortable.
Last year in the Amateur Public Links Championship, Fathauer was eliminated in the quarterfinals after having to play 45 holes the day before. This was one instant replay he didn’t enjoy, though he brushed it aside.
"I can’t use that as an excuse," he said dejectedly. "I didn’t hit the golf shots today – or yesterday. It caught up to me."
He nearly caught up to Kittleson, who clearly was playing more steadily after falling as many as four holes behind. A par at the second and birdies at the fourth and fifth gave Kittleson a 2-up advantage. A third birdie at the par-5 10th hole after a nifty pitch shot to 3 feet combined with a fat chip by Fathauer won another hole.
When Kittleson saved par from just off the front of the green at 11 and Fathauer again failed to get up and down, the lead swelled to four.
But Fathauer saved par at 15 with a 15-foot curler while Kittleson bogeyed from the fairway bunker, and that seemed to change the momentum. Kittleson hit a squirrelly tee shot at 13 that resulted in a sloppy bogey and prompted him to concede a 4-footer that cut his lead in half.
"I felt pretty in control when I was 4 up," Kittleson said, "and then I had a pretty relatively easy fairway bunker shot on 12, and he was way left in the rough and then hit it over. And then I just fatted the bunker shot and made bogey and he made a good 15-footer for par and that kind of turned the momentum."
The pendulum swung back in his direction after he drove into the right fairway bunker. Fathauer found the first cut of rough but ended up well short of the green. Kittleson then hit the shot of the match off a clean lie, blasting a 7-iron from 170 yards that stopped hole high 12 feet away. He drained it to restore the advantage to 3 up and Fathauer, missing the next two greens, ran out of holes.
"I was horrible. I won’t be playing golf for a while," said Fathauer, who wasn’t planning to play again until the first round of the PGA Tour National Qualifying Tournament. "(I’m taking) a lot of time off."
Kittleson, meanwhile, had a date in the semifinals at 9 a.m. EDT Saturday against Adam Mitchell of Chattanooga, Tenn.
"I'm excited. I'm definitely excited and looking forward to the other matches," Kittleson said. "Hopefully, the other matches … and just I'm playing well and just kind of trying to keep doing it."
--USGA material used in this story