ADA, MI (July 21, 2010)--ADA, Mich. – When the names started dropping off the scoring tree, and some of the pre-tournament favorites headed home, Anthony Paolucci looked at the remaining contenders and had a peculiar reaction.
“Guess he won’t win three in a row,” he quipped.
No, Jordan Spieth will not repeat at the U.S. Junior Amateur, an idea that seemed preposterous at the start of the week. But that’s the rub with match play: It doesn’t always identify the best player.
“Anybody can beat anybody on any given day,” said Denny McCarthy, who beat stroke-play medalist Curtis Thompson and Devon Purser in Thursday’s matches. “That’s how match play works. If you have an off day and someone has a good day, that’s tough luck. You’re gone.”
And the list of players who departed Egypt Valley Country Club early on Thursday was a veritable who’s who in the junior game:
• Emiliano Grillo. The top-ranked international player, at No. 8 in Golfweek’s rankings, hoped for a defining victory before, perhaps, joining the pro ranks. Instead, he lost to little-known Charlie Martin.
• Spieth. He stole the show at the PGA Tour’s Byron Nelson Championship, tying for 16th in front of the home fans. The top-ranked junior for much of the past year, he surely was the leading contender to win again this week and become only the second player to win multiple Junior Amateur titles. Not anymore.
• Thompson. The stroke-play medalist with a 10-under 134 total, he lost control of his driver on Day 1, barely getting by unheralded Scottie Scheffler, and he ran into a better, more consistent player in McCarthy on Thursday.
Fifteen-year-old Gavin Hall, upon returning to the clubhouse after an arduous 1-up victory in the morning, was asked his reaction to the news that several of the top-ranked players were sent packing.
Once fully informed, Hall said: “What? Wow, that’s shocking. Those players are amazing, especially in match play. I didn’t want to face them. Wow. No way. Wow, that’s shocking.”
Shocking, indeed. And the players remaining at the 63rd U.S. Junior Amateur Championship have a shot that, perhaps, wouldn’t have otherwise been afforded. Robby Shelton, 14, who beat Spieth, is still blissfully unaware of what he has accomplished here. Scott Wolfes was merely relieved not to throw away a 4-up lead with six to play. Canadian Richard Jung? He said he wouldn’t even recognize some of the top-tier players.
“Of course I’m surprised all the big names are out,” said Chung, a player so obscure in the States he’s not even entered in the AJGA database. “I thought they would win automatically because they’re really good players. But I guess that’s match play. It’s a whole different game.”
So now, the big question is: Who’s the best of the rest? All signs point to Justin Thomas, Paolucci, Hall and McCarthy, Golfweek’s new No. 1-ranked player.
Thomas had his first true test of the tournament late Thursday afternoon against Jorge Fernandez Valdes, a top-15 player worldwide. Thomas chipped in for birdie off the edge of the 12th green, giving him a 2-up lead that proved to be enough, even after dropping Nos. 16 and 17 when he flared a tee shot into the water and then three-putted from 40 feet.
“I felt like that was a big step to win this one,” Thomas said. “It only gets harder from here because you’re getting closer to the finals and everyone’s going for it. It was big. I know I beat one of the best out here, and I know I have a good chance to win this tournament, so hopefully I’ll be there on Saturday.”
Paolucci came to Michigan wondering if his spotty form would carry over to the national championship. Sure appeared that way when he struggled through stroke-play qualifying, grabbing the 26th seed. His side of the bracket seemed daunting, too, and, barring any upsets, would have faced Wyndham Clark, Grillo and Spieth in consecutive matches. Instead, he was able to advance without much stress, even while not playing particularly sharp.
“With all the top players losing, I felt like I was the next one to go,” Paolucci said. “My dad kept telling me that what happened this morning, I can’t focus it. I can’t worry about it. Every match is you either win or go home.”
And, surprise, the defending champ and stroke-play medalist were among those heading home early.
“I don’t want to say the road is easier,” Thomas said, “but those kids are saying, ‘Oh, I just beat the No. 1 kid in the country,’ and now he’s got all the confidence in the world.
“Everyone here has the same mindset: It doesn’t matter who it is, they want to beat the brains out of the other person.”
Even if it’s a relative unknown with lots of game and little to lose.
View results for U.S. Junior Amateur Golf Champonship