Michael Brennan (VSGA photo)
By Chris Lang
When Michael Brennan came off the 13th green Friday afternoon at Keswick Golf Club, he did so with a little extra juice in his step. He looked over at Jeff Long, whom he partnered with at this year’s U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship, and yelled, “I learned that from you!”
Long later explained what “that” was, saying that one thing he and Brennan have discussed in the past is that you’re never out of a hole, and no matter how dire the situation, you’ll always have a chance to make birdie or save par.
Brennan took that to heart. Nursing a 1-up lead in a tense final match at the 106th Virginia State Golf Association Amateur Championship, Brennan hit his drive on 13 so far left that it nearly ended up on a teeing ground for the adjacent 14th hole. Though he had an opening to reach the green, Brennan couldn’t see the flagstick, so after scoping out the situation, he sort of just hit and hoped. When he scrambled up a hillside to see where the ball had landed, he saw it had settled on the green, 12 feet past the hole.
He sank the birdie putt to go 2 up, a gigantic momentum swing and one that gave Brennan just enough cushion to fend off Zhang 1 up in the first Amateur title match to go the full 36 holes in five years.
Brennan, a 17 year old from Leesburg and a rising senior at Tuscarora High School, won the Schwarzschild Brothers Trophy. Two years after he broke onto the Virginia amateur scene as a 15 year old—in 2017, he won the VSGA Junior Match Play, earned stroke-play medalist honors at the VSGA Amateur and tied for low-am honors at the Delta Dental State Open of Virginia—Brennan added the biggest title yet to his resume.
“The birdie on 13 was really big,” Brennan said. “I hit a terrible drive, and to be able to hit a good wedge shot from there and to make that putt, that was really good. That was a lot of momentum coming through.”
The match was far from over after the 13th hole in the afternoon, but the 18-year-old Zhang, a recent Blacksburg High School graduate, was never quite able to catch up. The two junior standouts showed tremendous nerve down the stretch, making clutch putt after clutch putt to set up a fantastic final three holes.
On the par-5 15th hole, Zhang hit a solid approach, leaving him a two-putt birdie that cut the lead to 1 up. Zhang’s short game kept him in the match all afternoon. In the opening 18 holes, he got out of jail on the par-3 11th to salvage a par and a tie of that hole. On 18, he hit his drive right into a terrible lie in tall grass, and he managed to get up and down for par from left and short of the green to tie the hole and get to the afternoon 2 down.
That same short-game prowess kept the match going deep into the afternoon. Zhang’s tee shot on the par-3 16th came up short and right of the green, and he mishit his chip long past the flagstick. But he rallied to sink a long par putt to salvage another tie of a hole.
On 17, Zhang got up and down for birdie to match Brennan, sending the match to the 18th hole for the second time.
“Christopher made some great putts on 15, 16, and 17 to keep the match going,” Brennan said. “That was really impressive.”
On the final hole, each player had an opportunity for birdie. Brennan was past the flagstick and had a tricky putt that started uphill but went downhill, and with a 1-up lead, he was careful not to ram it past the hole, knowing if he tied the hole, he’d win the championship. The putt came up just short, and Zhang conceded the par.
Zhang had an uphill bender from about 20 feet, and it just missed going in, ending the match.
Afterward, Brennan and his father Michael—who served as his caddie—embraced on the green, soaking in the moment.
“At the end, he didn’t read many of the putts, because I just felt better doing it myself,” the younger Brennan said. “He definitely teases me for doing stupid stuff, and things like that. He tries to keep it light out there.”
Brennan won’t have his dad on the bag at Inverness Club in Toledo in a couple of weeks at the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship—USGA rules prohibit a parent from caddying for his or her child. Instead, his brother Sean will tote the bag. If Brennan plays anything like he did this week at Keswick in winning five matches against a variety of opponents—mid-ams, college players and fellow juniors—he’ll have a chance to advance deep into the event.
“You don’t get to play in many match-play events like that,” Brennan said. “I’ll learn from this week. Even though I won, I still messed up a lot, and I need to learn from those mistakes and put that toward the U.S. Junior.”