It shouldn't have been a huge surprise for those who follow amateur golf when Drew Kittleson found himself facing Danny Lee in the final match of the 2008 U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst. After all, the Scottsdale native was the top-ranked amateur in the world in 2006 and was twice named an AJGA All-American.
But still, Kittleson was ranked 702nd in the world following the '06 season as he was set to start his freshman season at Florida State University.
The reasons for golfers losing their form are legion. Crises of confidence, swing flaws, injury, but for Kittleson it was a growth spurt that saw him add nearly six inches to his frame. The added height was just too much for his swing to keep up with.
Working with renowned swing coach Butch Harmon helped turn awkwardness into fluidity in short order, and by 2007 he had turned things around, taking top-10 finishes in three major tournaments: the Northeast Amateur, Southern Amateur and Southwestern Amateur. His best finish in that stretch was a share of runner-up at the Northeast Am, giving him the No. 17 spot in the amateurgolf.com - Bridgestone Golf Player Rankings at year's end.
Although he managed only two top-40 finishes leading up to the U.S. Am (in the Northeast and Sunnehanna) Kittleson's play at Pinehurst turned plenty of heads.
His length off the tee led to plenty of short irons into the greens (6-iron was as high as he'd go all week) and factored directly to Kittleson leading 55 of the 72 holes he'd played leading up to the finals.
The journey ended when he ran into the Danny Lee buzzsaw in the championship match. Despite carding a 30 through the back-9 of the afternoon match, he managed to only cut the 5-hole lead down to 3, eventually succumbing to a barrage of six birdies in eight holes by Lee. The 36-hole match ended 5 & 4 in favor of Lee, who entered the tourney ranked No. 1 in the world.
"It was pretty fun to watch actually," said Kittleson of Lee's closing skills. "He was just pouring it in."
The rising FSU junior had his share of admirers also.
"He’s got it all," said longtime Pinehurst caddy Rob Henry, who was on his bag all week. "He’s all business out there. I’ll tell you, his length is very good and he chips the ball well. He can hit all the shots, in my opinion."
Although the loss stung, Kittleson noted that he'll have trips to the British and U.S. Opens as well as a likely spot in The Masters to help heal that wound.
"It's disappointing, obviously," he said after the championship match. "But I guess if you are going to come in second in one event, this is the one to do it."
By Peter Conroy