WEST CALDWELL, N.J. (Oct. 3, 2012) --Past champion Paul Simson, 61, of Raleigh, N.C., and Curtis Skinner, 55, of Lake Bluff, Ill., each won a pair of matches on a soggy and foggy Wednesday at Mountain Ridge Country Club to advance to Thursday’s 18-hole championship match of the 2012 USGA Senior Amateur.
Simson, the 2010 champion, registered five birdies and an eagle on the 6,838-yard, par-71 Donald Ross design in defeating Jim Knoll, 60, of Sunnyvale, Calif., 3 and 2, in the first of the two semifinal matches. Earlier in the day, Simson played just 10 holes before Stephen Sharpe, of Greensboro, N.C., decided to concede the match after the 1-hour, 56-minute weather delay due to more than an inch of rain that saturated the course. Simson was leading the match, 5 up.
Skinner, who is competing in his first Senior Amateur, recovered from squandering a 3-up lead midway through the second nine to defeat 2012 U.S. Senior Open low amateur Doug Hanzel, 55, of Savannah, Ga., 2 and 1.
It was the third victory for Skinner on Wednesday. He came out at 7:30 a.m. EDT to finish off Tuesday’s suspended third-round match against Graham Cooke, of Canada, prevailing in 19 holes. The two were all square through 18 holes when darkness halted play. After a quick break, Skinner then eliminated Steve Golliher, 55, of Knoxville, Tenn., 2 and 1 in the quarterfinals.
The USGA Senior Amateur, for golfers 55 and over, is one of 13 national championships conducted annually by the United States Golf Association, 10 of which are strictly for amateur.
The championship began with 156 golfers, who played 36 holes of stroke play last weekend, before the field was trimmed to 64 for match play. Five matches were played over the past three days leading to the 8 a.m. championship match on Thursday.
“I have about another 15 minutes to celebrate and then I have to get ready for tomorrow,” said Simson, who grew up in nearby Chatham, N.J., but moved from the Garden State when he was 19 to attend the University of New Mexico. “If this was stroke play, it’d be a huge celebration, but it’s match play and [on Thursday morning] we start even. I had it going today. I knew I was going to have a tough match with Jim and I just can’t get over some of the things I did out there. I think I hit every fairway and every green, which is pretty unusual.”
Simson and Knoll played a see-saw match on the outward nine until the former took control by making a birdie at the par-4 eighth and holing a 75-foot bump-and-run pitch for eagle at the par-5 ninth hole. He built his advantage to 3 up with another birdie-3 at No. 11.
Knoll trimmed the deficit to 1 down with birdies at 12 and 13, but Simson halted the momentum by deftly holing a slick 15-foot downhill birdie putt at the par-3 14th to go 2 up again. A three-putt bogey by Knoll at the par-4 15th essentially ended his comeback hopes.
“There’s a reason he wins all the time,” said Knoll, the Northern California Golf Association’s Senior Player of the Year in 2011 and 2012. “It was obvious. It was a pleasure [to play against him] and he’s a gentleman. And he’ll be hard to beat, especially if he is going to play like that.
“My luck kind of ran out. At the end [of the match], I started hitting the ball a little bit better and I thought I might be able to hang with him.”
Added Simson: “Let me tell you … the putt I made on No. 11 and especially the putt on No. 14 were the real daggers. The putt on No. 11, the ball plucked on the side of the slope and I thought I might not be able to replace [it]. I putted four times [on Wednesday] and didn’t even get it on the green there so I was I worried I would putt it off the green and down the slope, which would have been mighty embarrassing. I just touched it and it rolled down there and went in.
“But then the putt on 14 where he had just won two holes with birdie and was inside me, [my son and caddie] Phillip and I came up with just a great read. It was really slick going down the hill and it was just fantastic.”
Despite the fog that enveloped the course after the morning showers, Simson did not miss a green and was the equivalent of seven under par, with the usual match-play concessions. Had the two been playing best ball, they would have been 11 under.
Skinner also took control of a tight match with consecutive birdies at the par-3 seventh and par-4 eighth holes. When his lead moved to 3 up after a winning par 4 at No. 11, he seemingly had the match in hand.
But Hanzel, who is believed to be the first person to qualify for match play at the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Mid-Amateur and USGA Senior Amateur in the same year, answered by winning three consecutive holes. His birdie at the par-4 15th hole squared the match and the momentum.
“He does everything well,” said Skinner of Hanzel, who defeated No. 63 seed Pat O’Donnell in the quarterfinals, 3 and 1. “I can’t think of a weakness in the guy’s game.”
Skinner followed with one of his best shots of the week, a choked-down 8-iron from 144 yards to 4 feet at No. 16 for a winning birdie. At the par-5 17th hole, Skinner was safely on in 3. Hanzel’s third spun off the green and his recovery shot was 15 feet from the hole. When he failed to convert the par attempt, Skinner had advanced to the championship match.
“My intent was to make the cut and win one match,” said Skinner. “I’ve been in a couple of absolute dogfights and I am happy to come out ahead.”
Before this week’s Senior Amateur, Skinner, a reinstated amateur who is a futures broker, had qualified for three USGA championships and had never advanced to match play.
Both finalists are now exempt into next year’s U.S. Senior Open at Omaha Country Club and U.S. Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. The champion receives a 10-year Senior Amateur exemption and the runner-up a three-year exemption. The champion is also exempt into the next two U.S. Mid-Amateurs. The finalists also receive an exemption from local qualifying for the 2013 U.S. Open.