Cole Hammer: The biggest day of my golf career so far
Cole Hammer at the 2018 U.S. Amateur (USGA/Chris Keane photo)
Cole Hammer at the 2018 U.S. Amateur (USGA/Chris Keane photo)

2018 was the year that Cole Hammer became a household name in the amateur golf world.

We had heard his name before, of course. He was the 15-year-old kid who qualified for the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, showing a poise reminiscent of the champion that week, fellow Texan Jordan Spieth, who so memorably impressed with his PGA Tour debut at the 2010 Byron Nelson at the age of 16.

As he heads to Austin to attend the University of Texas, the comparisons to Spieth won't be dying down any time soon -- not with the memory of Spieth helping to deliver the program's first national championship in 40 years, and certainly not with Hammer's current trajectory that has taken him to the top of the amateur golf world at the age of 18.

He is now a USGA champion after steamrolling the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball field at Jupiter Hills in Florida with partner Garrett Barber. They won every match by at least three holes.

He is a Western Amateur champion after shooting 23 under (including a course-record 61 at Sunset Ridge Country Club in Illinois) to share medalist honors, and then gutting out four match-play wins that all went at least 18 holes. Two of his matches went 20 holes.

He made two deep runs at a second USGA championship title, reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Junior at Baltusrol and most recently, falling in the semis of the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. There, Hammer displayed the shotmaking and short game prowess that made him a favorite of a Fox broadcast team, before running into the one player in the field who was playing better than he was, a red-hot Viktor Hovland of Norway who would win the title a day later.

Along the way he made history by becoming just the fifth player to medal in the Western and U.S. Amateur in the same year -- he is just the second player to do it since none other than Bobby Jones medaled at both events in 1920.

The latest honor bestowed to Hammer was his selection by the USGA to represent the United States at the World Amateur Team Championship (Eisenhower Trophy) in Ireland.

Yet as meteoric as his rise has been this summer, it may all have been very different if not for what happened on a cool, windy March day in Charleston, South Carolina.

"The biggest day of my golf career so far"

Hammer came to the Azalea Invitational in somewhat of a drought. Though he had some good finishes in various junior and amateur events, he had no wins on any level since his attention-grabbing 2015 U.S. Open appearance.

Cole Hammer at the 2015 U.S. Open
Expectations were high after the 2015 U.S. Open
(Golf Channel photo)
Describing the challenge of managing expectations after the feat of qualifying for the U.S. Open at such a young age, he spoke of self-imposed mental hurdles.

“I felt like I should win every tournament because I just played with the pros, and obviously those are just not good expectations to have on myself,” he told assembled media during the U.S. Amateur. “I think I just put way too much pressure on myself and ended up not playing the golf that I thought I should be, and it lasted for a couple years.”

But he had made two changes in his game that he hoped would pay off in 2018. The first was employing famed sports psychologist Bob Rotella to shore up his mental approach, and the second was switching to the claw grip on the greens. His confidence was blooming and he was seeing more and more putts go in.

And he we was trending well in the Azalea, finishing 10th in his debut in 2016, and getting into contention before finishing runner-up in 2017.

He found himself back in contention after an opening 2-under 69, but it was his second-round 63 that allowed him to put his stamp on the tournament. A nine-birdie avalanche resulted in the lowest score of the week by two shots, and was only one shot off the competitive course record.

An even-par 71 in Round 3 gave him a two-shot lead going into the final round, but cracks were showing. Hammer stood on the 18th tee four shots clear, but an ugly double bogey cut the lead in half heading into the final round.

If Hammer was unnerved by his finish, he didn't show it, coming out strong on Sunday and building his lead throughout the front nine. He made the turn bogey-free at 3 under, and when he birdied the 10th, his lead had grown to five shots with eight holes to play.

Little did he or anyone else know at the time that those five shots would not be enough.

"The lowest of lows"

The 11th hole at the CC of Charleston
The 11th hole at the CC of Charleston
It was not a slow bleed. Anyone familiar with Seth Raynor's Country Club of Charleston layout knows that no lead is safe until the par-3 11th hole is played. It is a reverse-redan hole to the extreme, with an angled tabletop green guarded on each side by bunkers so deep that a volunteer is on hand to rake after the players, to ensure good lies and reduce the likelihood of a series of shots back and forth between the hazards.

The hole is so treacherous that Sam Snead once recorded a 13 there, and so controversial that Ben Hogan famously recommended alterations via dynamite.

Hammer would take a 6, bunkering his tee shot and then taking three more shots to put his ball on the surface. When Joseph Pagdin of Orlando (himself a runner-up with Hammer the year prior) birdied the next hole, the lead was one and the game was truly on.

But again Hammer responded, making his own birdie on the next hole and maintaining his lead until arriving at the 72nd tee one shot clear of Pagdin and Canadian Hugo Bernard, who had made a late charge with birdies on three of the previous four holes.

Having double-bogeyed the hole in Round 3, Hammer again found trouble off the tee, driving through a fairway bunker and onto a steep upslope. His fairway metal shot flew left into the greenside bunker, and with an awkward stance to a green running away, he put his bunker shot 25 feet past the hole. After his putt for the win stayed out, his five-shot lead was gone and he headed to the first tee for a three-man playoff, still in search of his first amateur win.

"The highest of highs"

It was on that first playoff hole that Hammer's fortunes for the Azalea, and perhaps for the entire 2018 season, changed.

It was over as quickly as it began. A drive in the fairway was followed by a stuffed wedge shot to two feet and a walk-off birdie. Suddenly, Hammer was a winner, pulling himself out of the fire by keeping his cool, absorbing the blow of the triple on the 11th as well as a second-straight final-hole stumble.

Cole Hammer with the Azalea trophy
Cole Hammer with the Azalea trophy
(Tommy Braswell photo)
The rescue again evoked the memory of Spieth, who lost a big lead the previous summer at the British Open at Royal Birkdale, only to rebound and pull it out down the final stretch.

Though the wedge shot on the first extra hole was huge, as was the rebound birdie at the 13th, perhaps the greatest indicator of Hammer's poise and growth under Rotella was his mindset on his bunker shot on the 72nd hole.

“It was a tough bunker shot, and I couldn’t get cute with it and risk leaving it in the bunker and making another 6,” Hammer said afterward to the Post and Courier. “That wouldn’t have been the smart thing to do.”

How many young players, winless for over two years, on the cusp of losing a five-shot lead on the back nine, and with a three-man playoff looming, would risk everything trying to win it right then and there? Yet Hammer stayed cool and confident enough to play it smart and take his chances with a long putt or a playoff.

During his run at the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, we asked Hammer about the importance of that day. His response was unequivocal.

“I truly believe that was the biggest day of my golf career so far,” he said. “To win it [the Azalea] this year gave me a lot of confidence, and it kind of carried through into the summer.

“It was just great to 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 and gave me some momentum.”

As we've seen, that momentum has only grown and Hammer is now a full-fledged force.

What if?

But what if it had gone the other way? What if Hammer, seeking his first big amateur win and first win of any kind since before his U.S. Open appearance, battling the weight of self-imposed pressure and expectations, had blown a five-shot back-nine lead and lost the tournament? Where would he be today?

It's hard to watch his swing, shot-shaping ability, short-game creativity, and confident manner and see anything other than a player marching resolutely toward unbounded success at the amateur, college and eventually professional level.

But confidence can be a fickle thing, and carrying around a Texas-sized scar on one's psyche is not the recipe for records, milestones and titles.

It's a burden that, thankfully, Hammer will not have to bear as he heads to Austin, Ireland and beyond, thanks to that cool, breezy Sunday at the Azalea when things could have gone so differently.

ABOUT THE Azalea Invitational

72 hole stroke play with a 54 hole cut on a 1925 Seth Raynor design. Good mix of college players, juniors and mid amateurs. 7 spots available in a qualifier. Impressive list of past champions at this traditional event. Reigning USGA champs often use this tournament as a tune-up for the Masters.

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