Devon Bling (USGA photo)
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (Aug. 17, 2018) – It has been a relatively short week for Viktor Hovland
– as short, anyway, as a semifinal run at a USGA championship can be. Hovland, who has been near the bottom on the bracket since drawing the No. 27 seed from stroke play, always seems to be the man who goes out last and comes in first.
“He has only played half the golf I have the past two days,” Cole Hammer
said good-naturedly on Friday as soon as both players had made it through the quarterfinals. They’ll meet in the semifinals Saturday morning at Pebble Beach.
Hovland is the Oklahoma State player who already knocked off two teammates this week – fellow Cowboy Hayden Wood in the first round then fellow Norwegian and high school teammate Kristoffer Reitan in the third round. Hovland has yet to see the 18th hole in match play, and that’s not a bad thing considering the carnage that can take place on the Pacific-lined par 5 with a cypress tree defending the green. In fact, he hasn’t seen anything past the 12th in his past two matches. On Friday, Hovland went 5 under in 12 holes to make quick work of Austin Squires
Squires tied Hovland at the first with par, but Hovland won the next seven holes in a row. Hovland has only made one bogey in his past two matches. He traces his good feeling on slick Pebble Beach greens to back-to-back one-putts at the start of his third-round match Thursday afternoon. After that, he just felt comfortable with his putter.
“From there, I just saw the lines, and my speed was really good. I was just making putts, and that just really helped,” Hovland said.
Hovland has Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton on the bag this week, who caddied for another Cowboy, Peter Uihlein, in 2010 when Uihlein won this championship at Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash.
“He's seen a lot,” Hovland said of Bratton. “Just been around a lot of good players, seen a lot of good matches, so he kind of knows the right things to say, and yeah, just makes me more alert for things to come, and it's really helped me out.
As for Hammer, don’t expect him to go down as easily as Hovland’s last two opponents. The 18-year-old, who is headed to Texas this fall, has a target on his back after winning the Western Amateur last week. Stick a microphone in front of him, and Hammer gives you a window into a golf-centric brain that is equal parts calculating and poetic.
Hammer took down England’s Alex Fitzpatrick
, who is about to become a Wake Forest freshman, in 16 holes on Friday.
“My game feels like it’s in a great spot, running on a high right now,” Hammer said.
When things are good, you can smile even at your misses. That’s what Hammer did at the 14th, when he missed a putt to go 4 up with four to play. Ultimately, Hammer still won the match, 3 and 2.
“It was nice to have a 3-up cushion and I played great the whole day to get that cushion,” Hammer said.
Hammer’s last name might suggest an aggressive, overpowering player, but his success comes from just the opposite. His consistency wears opponents down.
“I just am really never out of the hole,” Hammer said when asked about his strength in this format. “I put the ball in play on about every hole and feel like I'm always looking at a birdie putt to either halve or win the hole. I stay real patient out there, which I think is huge because if you get a couple down early or you're just not seeing putts go in, there's a lot of golf left.”
Patience also served Isaiah Salinda
well on Friday as he charted a path to the semifinals. Salinda took down Will Gordon
, 2 and 1, after going 4 up in the first five holes then watching his lead dwindle.
“The up and downs kept the momentum in my favor. I was just trying to hold onto that lead.”
Gordon tried hard to make a comeback late in the round, winning Nos. 7, 8, 9 and 11. All of a sudden, Salinda, a Stanford senior who is making his USGA debut this week, was only 1 up.
Salinda all but sealed his match at No. 16, where he hit a controlled 9-iron from 150 yards to just inches and set up a well-timed birdie. Gordon’s birdie putt from 12 feet looked good all the way but lipped out.
“I guess I’ve hit a few of those this week,” Salinda said of the shot. “I thought it was going in, I guess it was just on the lip.”
Salinda will meet Devon Bling
in an all-Pac 12 and all-California semifinal match on Saturday. Bling, who plays for the UCLA, took down Davis Riley in a match he never led until a birdie at the 18th gave him the 1-up advantage.
Bling, who is relishing an underdog role this week, likes to play against the golf course, and it has worked well so far at Pebble Beach.
“Match play is a little bit different,” he explained. “You do rely on what your competitor does. So yeah, there were certain times -- me and my caddie, we talked it over. If he's going to win a hole, he's going to have to beat me on that hole.”