Cole Hammer (USGA photo)
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (Aug. 16, 2018) – Even four days – and five rounds – deep into the U.S. Amateur, Cole Hammer
finds his mind wandering from time to time on the course. Call it the Pebble Beach effect.
“As far as a total experience goes, I don't know if anything could beat Pebble Beach on a sunny day like this. It's incredible, and most of the time in match play I'm grinding the whole time, but I find myself looking around at this beauty here,” Hammer said Thursday after a 2-and-1 victory over Zach Murray. It brought his summer match-play record to 16-1.
The lone blemish in that record came at the U.S. Junior last month, at the hands of eventual runner-up Akshay Bhatia. Hammer wears a Baltusrol-logoed cap in honor of the site of that loss. It motivates him.
Still, Hammer is riding a significant high that extends to March, when he won the Azalea Amateur. Hammer had a five-shot lead in the final round, lost it, then won in a playoff. It was a turning point – in fact, Hammer calls it the biggest day of his golf career so far.
“It was just great to kind of go from the lowest of lows pretty much to the highest of highs, I guess, because I hadn't won a tournament in a couple years, and to pull that off was huge for me,” Hammer said.
To this point, Hammer looks like the player to beat at Pebble Beach. There are so many good vibes to draw on, and the 18-year-old seems to be in a good place.
Hammer will meet Alex Fitzpatrick
in the quarterfinals, a player who has experienced this championship at each level, just without a club in his hand. Fitzpatrick, an Englishman starting his freshman season at Wake Forest next week, carried the bag for older brother Matthew when he won the title in 2013.
Matthew tweeted a throwback photo Thursday morning in honor of his brother’s first-round match-play win, but Alex said Matthew has been mostly hands-off. For one thing, he’s playing the Wyndham Championship this week.
“He basically sort of left me alone this week, left me to carry on with my golf and not distract me,” said Alex, who put the U.S. Amateur in his sights early in the year.
Asked to compare their games, Alex referenced stature – and discipline.
“I played a lot of sports when I was younger, so I did everything pretty fast,” he said. “I’m built bigger, that’s where my length comes from and my lack of touch from around the greens.”
Alex doesn’t give himself enough credit. When he struggled to find his touch with his irons in the first match, he relied on his shots around the green to make it to the third round. Both of his matches went extra holes on Thursday. His day was 39 holes long.
A bogey on the 18th against McClure Meissner nearly sent him home, but he rallied with birdie to advance.
If there’s a player who comes close to Hammer’s streak of good play, it’s Isaiah Salinda
. Forty-six California players started this championship, but Salinda is one of only two left. Even better, he’s from South San Francisco. The 21-year-old is playing his first USGA Championship a month after winning the Pacific Coast Amateur at Olympic Club.
“I felt like NCAAs was kind of the start of my good play this summer,” said Salinda, who finished T-15 among college golf’s best. “That was really big for my confidence to play well there and gave me some momentum going into my summer tournaments. But I think the biggest difference was now I'm able to play and play good golf even when I know I'm not necessarily swinging it my swing or mechanically not the best.”
To reach the quarterfinals, Salinda had to take down 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Stewart Hagestad
, a fellow Californian. Salinda trailed for most of the match – and got as far as 2 down at the turn – but birdies at Nos. 11 and 15 brought him back to square.
At the par-5 18th, Salinda fired a 4-iron at the pin, lost it in the sun, but found himself with an eagle putt. Salinda finished with birdie, which was just enough to edge Hagestad, 1 up.
Salinda meets Will Gordon
, a Vanderbilt senior, in the quarterfinals.
charted the quickest path into the quarterfinals, defeating fellow Norwegian Kristoffer Reitan in 12 holes. Hovland has now defeated two teammates in three matches: fellow Oklahoma State player Hayden Wood in the Round of 64, and now former high school teammate Reitan. On Friday, Reitan gets Austin Squires
in the final. Squires, a senior at the University of Cincinnati, had to grind all day
“I played 37 holes today, and there was never a moment of relief,” said Squires, whose first U.S. Amateur start was at Riviera a year ago.
The final match pits Devon Bling
, the other Californian still on the bracket, against Davis Riley
, who lost to Hammer two weeks ago at the Western Amateur.