Virginia Amateur winner Mark Lawrence Jr.
ALDIE, VA (July 1, 2017) - The first thing Mark Lawrence Jr. did when he finally got his hands on the Schwarzschild Brothers trophy, awarded to the winner of the Virginia State Golf Association Amateur Championship, was to find one name in particular: Mark Lawrence. He found it at the bottom, near where the trophy settles against its wooden base.
“I’m so pumped to have my name on the trophy with my dad,” Mark Jr. said. “I’ve wanted to do that for a long time.”
Thirty-seven years after his father won his championship at Willow Oaks Country Club, Mark Lawrence Jr. (Hermitage CC) joined the long list of Amateur champions. Lawrence defeated Jordan Utley (Independence GC) 3 and 2 on a steamy Saturday at The Club at Creighton Farms, becoming the second No. 32 seed to win the championship in the last decade.
Lawrence, a rising junior at Virginia Tech, squeaked into the match-play field by winning a five-for-one playoff with a birdie on Wednesday. Afterward, he went on a run that included victories over the stroke-play medalist (Michael Brennan), a three-time finalist (Ji Soo Park) and Utley, a finalist in 2014 who had defeated Lawrence that year on his way to the title match.
With Lawrence dormie on the 34th hole on a grueling day that included a weather delay of nearly 90 minutes, Utley’s birdie attempt came up short on No. 16. When Lawrence’s birdie attempt settled inches from the cup, Utley simply said, “Congratulations, bud,” and the two shook hands.
Lawrence walked off the green, put his arms in the air, and rushed to hug both his mother and father.
“I was trying so hard to just stay in my zone, I was just thinking about my putt,” Lawrence said. “I wasn’t really thinking ahead until I hit the putt. Once he conceded, I started to finally think about it. Just got really excited. I don’t really know how to explain it. I’m just incredibly excited to finally break through and win.”
He had been on the doorstep for years. Lawrence was a quarterfinalist in 2014, a finalist in 2015 and a semifinalist in 2016. Utley, too, has been no stranger to making deep runs in the Amateur. In five of his eight appearances, Utley has advanced at least to the quarterfinals.
“I’ve been here over and over again, whether it’s been at this tournament, the Mid-Am, the Valentine [Invitational], whatever,” Utley said. “At some point, you’ve just got to push through the door. Mark could have said the exact same thing today. But he got to the door before me today.”
Prior to the start of the morning round, the VSGA observed a moment of silence in honor of Dr. David Kovach, a longtime member of the VSGA board of directors who passed away earlier this week.
Lawrence won the first two holes to stake himself to a quick lead. But ever resilient, Utley never led the match get away. He hung around before winning holes 11 and 12 with birdies to pull all square.
A par on 13 gave Utley a brief lead, but on the risk-reward short par-4 14th, Utley made a bogey, allowing Lawrence to square the match. Utley went 1 up again with a par on 15, but he bogeyed the next two holes, and Lawrence won both with pars to take the lead for good.
After lunch, Lawrence’s steady play helped him build a 4-up lead after the 7th hole. Utley made two bogeys during that stretch, and it seemed like Lawrence wasn’t going to make a mistake that would allow Utley to get back into the match.
Then on No. 8, Lawrence blasted a downhill birdie putt past the hole and missed the comebacker. Utley made par to cut into the lead. Utley had a chance to cut into the lead further, but a birdie putt on No. 9 jumped off the edge of the hole, and Lawrence made the turn 3 up.
“That’s the name of the game. You’ve got to make putts in this format to really put pressure on the other guy,” Utley said. “At key times, when I had looks to do it, I didn’t do it. I was pretty solid on some par putts that kept things rolling, but getting those birdie looks to fall would have been nice.”
Utley most likely would have gotten one to fall on No. 10, as he stuffed his approach to five feet. When Lawrence missed a par putt, he conceded the hole, leaving him 2 up with eight holes to play. At that point, officials suspended play because of dangerous weather in the area. Minutes after players and spectators returned to the clubhouse, heavy rain, lightning and gusty winds hit the course.
Utley had made birdie on 11 in three of his four previous matches (as well as in the morning round). But he made par while Lawrence made birdie after the delay.
“I think if there was such a thing as a turning point, I’d say the rain delay was a huge piece,” Utley said. “Only because it stunted my momentum going into a par 5 where Mark can exploit an advantage, which was his length off the tee. For him to get it greenside in two, get up and down and tap in, that was a good play for him. Going for the green in two wasn’t an option for me.
“Coming right out of the rain delay and him going 3 up with seven to play, at some point, I’ve got to turn it on. Unfortunately, 12, 13, 15, 16, those are holes you’re not looking to make a lot of birdies. If you make one, great. But they’re not the most scoreable holes.”To Utley’s point, both competitors made par on each of those holes in the afternoon, enough for Lawrence to close out the match.
Lawrence became the third straight Virginia Tech player to win the Amateur, joining Maclain Huge in 2015 and Joey Lane in 2016. One of the big keys for Lawrence was playing deliberate, thoughtful golf, something he emphasized during the spring at Tech.
“Our assistant coach, [Brian] Sharp, he said it seemed like I was going a little quick,” Lawrence said. “Quick hitting my range balls, stuff like that. He got me to realize that I needed to slow down everything. Not just, slow down your swing. I had to slow down my routine and slow down everything. Not try to play too fast. Not try to get ahead of yourself.”
Lawrence never did that this week. When asked about how much he wanted this championship after Thursday’s first two rounds of match play, he hedged his answer, noting “there’s a lot of good players still out there.” He took every opponent seriously. He found his groove at some points. He grinded through matches at others.
That’s the sort of thing a champion does. And after playing in VSGA events since he was nine years old, he can finally lay claim to the biggest VSGA championship of them all.
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