by Ryan Lavner
ADA, Mich. (July 23, 2010) – With his only sight line a gap between two towering pine trees, and with his opponent in close, certain to seal the match, Justin Thomas choked down on a lob wedge and hit a prayer from the thickest, juiciest rough at Egypt Valley Country Club. As his ball floated over the steep enbankment in front of the 18th green, Thomas raced up the hill to see what he’d have left.
After the shot of the championship, it turned out to be very little.
Thomas halved the 18th with a miraculous birdie, then made a routine par on the first extra hole Friday to defeat Denny McCarthy and advance to Saturday’s 36-hole final at the U.S. Junior Amateur. Thomas will face Jim Liu, of Smithtown, N.Y., who at 14 years, 11 months, 15 days would easily become the youngest player ever to win the Junior Amateur.
“This is the goal,” Thomas said. “This is what I wanted to be here for, and I expected myself to be here.”
Liu defeated the hottest player in the field, 14-year-old Robby Shelton, to advance. One down with six to play, Liu won five straight holes on the back nine to blindside Shelton and steamroll into the final. It was the kind of birdie run that conjured memories of his 59 during a Plantation Junior Golf Tour event in Orlando, Fla., in 2005 – when he was 9.
“I played really well,” Liu said, “and I’m really starting to put everything together. It’s starting to click.”
In his second-round match Thursday, against Davis Womble, Liu was 8 under through 11 holes en route to an 8-and-7 win, the most lopsided victory of the week. When his 40-footer rolled in from the back of the 14th green Friday afternoon, signaling a huge swing in momentum, Liu raised his putter and punched his fist through the air.
Thomas has seen that move before.
“He’s a birdie machine, and he can go nuts,” Thomas said. “I’m going to have to make some more putts tomorrow.”
And hope that he gets a few of the fortuitous breaks that defined his back-nine rally against McCarthy:
• One down with four to play, Thomas watched as McCarthy lipped out a 4-foot par putt on the 15th hole to square the match.
• Thomas hit the cart path on the par-5 17th hole, sending his tee shot some 40 yards further, into the fairway, leaving a much shorter approach into a well-guarded green. He two-putted from the right fringe for birdie, and McCarthy failed to get up-and-down from the back of the green and lost the hole.
• Thomas’ next tee shot also found the cart path, and his ball launched into the thickest rough on the course, short and right of the 18th green. After McCarthy stuck his approach to 6 feet, Thomas played the blind pitch shot over a steep hill, over a swale, to tap-in range. “I just trusted my yardage,” Thomas said, “and hit it exactly how I wanted to.”
On the first extra hole, after both players found the fairway, McCarthy’s gap wedge from 130 yards carried a few feet too far and bounded into the back rough, leaving a near-impossible chip. Thomas then two-putted from 25 feet, and McCarthy’s 7-footer missed on the low side, ending the match.
McCarthy walked back down the first fairway, alone, as a few spectators came up, shook his hand and offered a little solace.
“He played well, and he deserves to go to the next round,” said McCarthy, Golfweek’s top-ranked junior. “It’s 36 holes tomorrow, and he’s got a long run ahead.”
A victory Saturday would mean different things to both players. For Thomas, it would only enhance his legacy as an elite junior player. The third-youngest player to make the cut at a PGA Tour event, at last year’s Wyndham Championship, Thomas has won three times on the AJGA.
“It’d be very special,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’d be a failure (if he lost), but I got myself here, and I need to try to finish it. … You can never get enough when it comes to wins or how well you’ve done.”
Liu, meanwhile, would become the youngest player ever to win the Junior Amateur – by a significant margin. Tiger Woods holds the current record, winning his first of three straight titles when he was 15 years, 6 months, 28 days. Liu would be 7 months, 13 days younger.
“This would really mean a lot,” Liu said. “To see some of the names that are on that trophy, and to be a part of it, it would really be a great honor.”
View results for U.S. Junior Amateur Golf Champonship