Finalist Mark Lawrence Jr. (L) and Jordan Utley (R)
ALDIE, VA (June 30, 2017) - Thirty-two players out of 132 who start the Virginia Amateur Championship advance to match play, and once stroke play is over, those players are seeded 1-32. Once there, the seeding rarely matters. A 32 seed has won the championship before, most recently a decade ago when Pat Tallent—who later would win U.S. Senior Amateur and British Senior Amateur championships—made a run to the title after reaching match play via a playoff.
Ten years later at another Northern Virginia course, a 32 seed has reached the final again. He’s no ordinary No. 32, of course. Mark Lawrence Jr. (Hermitage CC), will be playing in his second championship match in three years Saturday at The Club at Creighton Farms after winning two matches Friday in convincing fashion. His opponent is another familiar name. Jordan Utley (Independence GC) was a finalist in 2014 at Spring Creek, where he battled gamely for 36 holes before falling to Jake Mondy.
Lawrence and Utley, who was seeded seventh, will begin their 36-hole championship match Saturday at 7:30 a.m.
The final will be the first between two Richmond-area players since 1993, when David Partridge topped Simon Cooke at James River Country Club in Newport News. Lawrence, a rising junior at Virginia Tech, rolled through the University of Virginia side of the bracket, defeating former UVa standouts Ji Soo Park (1757 GC) and Steve Serrao (Willow Oaks CC). Lawrence was completely dialed in during his semifinal with Serrao, winning the first seven holes on his way to an 8-and-7 triumph.
“He wasn’t having his best day, and he had some bad breaks, too,” Lawrence said. “I got some good breaks, hit the ball in the right spots and made some birdies.”
The 31-year-old Utley, a former University of Richmond standout, was the frontrunner in his two matches on Thursday, with neither of his matches making it past the 13th hole. The tables turned Friday, and Utley was in rally mode in both matches. Scott Shingler (Dominion Valley CC) led Utley 3 up at the turn in the quarterfinals, but Utley chipped away and ultimately squared the match with a par on 17. Each player made five on 18, sending the match back to No. 1.
Both Shingler and Utley had similar approach shots on the par-4 hole, about 130 yards away. Shingler put his within six feet. Utley answered with a brilliant approach that settled about two feet from the hole. Shingler’s birdie putt slipped left, and Utley tapped in for the 19-hole win.
“At that point, there’s no option,” Utley said. “You take dead aim and you put your best swing on it. I wish I would have made the putt at the end in regulation, but at the same time, I got a second opportunity there and I took advantage of it.
“He’s so good. He’s so solid,” Utley said of Shingler. “He puts pressure on you from the first hole on, and he really doesn’t relent. Fortunately, he didn’t make a lot of putts today, which was a benefit to me. Scott’s top notch, and I love playing with him.”
The second semifinal turned into another college rivalry match, with the former Spider Utley meeting former VCU Ram Vincent Nadeau (Spring Creek GC). Nadeau jumped ahead early, winning the first two holes. Utley birdied four of the next five holes to swing the match, and after birdies at 10 and 11, he led 5 up.
“He just birdied so many holes in a row, it’s hard to come back from,” said Nadeau, 29, who defeated current Arizona State player Ryan Douglass (River Creek Club) in the quarterfinals. “Especially in match play. It’s gets demoralizing a little bit.”
Nadeau, who won the final three holes of his match against Douglass, wasn’t ready to bow out. He won 12 and 13 to cut the lead to 3 up. On the short par-4 14th, both players elected to try to drive the green. Utley went left, leaving him in a plugged lie in a bunker with an awkward stance. Nadeau’s drive went into the front right bunker.
Utley hit first. With an impossible shot, he could only wedge it into a more favorable spot in the bunker closer to the hole. Nadeau hit a fantastic shot that grazed the edge of the hole but settled a good 10 feet past. Utley then got up and down for par, and Nadeau missed his birdie putt, leaving Utley still 3 up heading to 15.
Utley stuffed his tee shot on the par-3 15th to about eight feet, while Nadeau’s shot again found sand. When Nadeau’s bunker shot went 25 feet past the hole, he conceded, giving Utley the 4-and-3 win.
“I was lucky to even make match play,” said Nadeau, who was seeded 30th. “I hit four 10 footers in a row [Wednesday] just to make match play. I played the course blind. I was just happy to make it. I’m definitely happy to make the semifinals. I never expected that. I’m thankful for it.”
Serrao, 49, was able to put his week in perspective as well. He was exempt for qualifying thanks to a first-year exemption given to players who finish in the top five of the previous year’s VSGA Mid-Amateur Championship, and he’s now exempt into the next two VSGA Amateurs, along with the 2018 Delta Dental State Open of Virginia. He took out a top junior in the quarterfinals, beating UVa-bound Brandon Yoon (1757 GC) 4 and 3 before running into the Lawrence buzzsaw.
“One day I’ll be able to tell people I lost to him in the semis of the State Am when he’s playing on Tour,” Serrao said with a laugh.
Lawrence and Utley have some history. Utley defeated Lawrence at Spring Creek in 2014 on his way to the championship match, so he has an idea of what he’s up against on Saturday.
“I don’t throw this word around lightly, especially in the state, but Mark is an elite talent,” Utley said. “From the start, he’s been a good player. He’s just continued to evolve. He’s resilient, because he’s been in these positions before, whether it’s the Am a couple of years ago at Farmington, last year at the State Open where he was right there with a chance to win. And here he is again.”
Lawrence lost to Maclain Huge in the 2015 championship match at Farmington. He’s trying to become the third straight Virginia Tech player to hoist the Schwarzschild Brothers Trophy, joining Huge and Joey Lane. He took some lessons from that title match two years ago.
“I remember being really nervous from the get-go in that match,” Lawrence said. “I made some dumb mistakes right off the bat. I’m definitely going to go in with a better mindset tomorrow. I’m just going to play my game, be free out there. It’s a lot of golf. One hole isn’t going to kill you. You’ve got to see what happens and just play as good as you can.”
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