Roger Newsom (USGA/Chris Keane)
A new name is going to be engraved on the Frederick L. Dold Trophy.
Bob Royak, 57, of Alpharetta, Ga., outlasted defending champion Jeff Wilson, 56, of Fairfield, Calif., in 21 holes, in the semifinals of the 65th U.S. Senior Amateur Championship on Wednesday afternoon at Old Chatham Golf Club, ending Wilson’s hopes of being the first repeat winner in 39 years.
Roger Newsom, 55, of Virginia Beach, Va., claimed the other semifinal match with a 1-up win over Rick Cloninger, 62, of McDonough, Ga.
The two will square off in Thursday’s 18-hole championship match at 7:45 a.m. EDT.
The Royal-Wilson semifinal was the third-longest in championship history, only trailing Richard Van Leuvan’s 24-hole victory in 2000 and a 23-hole decision by John Kline in 1978. Neither player went on to win the title.
Royak, who qualified for this year’s U.S. Senior Open and was the 2017 Georgia State Golf Association’s Senior Player of the Year, parred the 21st hole, the par-4 third, to edge past Wilson, one of two players to be the low amateur in the U.S. Open and U.S. Senior Open. Wilson’s approach from a downslope rolled back into a bunker and he failed to convert a 4-foot putt after Royak’s 11-footer for birdie just missed.
“He’s a great player,” said Royak of Wilson. “He wasn’t on his A game. He gave me a couple of putts here and there that he could have made. But I didn’t give him anything either. I was pretty steady and drove it well.”
Wilson, 1 down going to 17 after his opponent converted a clutch 8-foot par putt the previous hole to maintain his advantage, knocked his tee shot to 10 feet on the par 3 to set up a birdie, tying the match.
Royak managed to force extra holes with a brilliant up-and-down par from the left-greenside bunker on the 18th hole, hitting a 54-degree wedge to 6 feet.
“That could have been a 4 out of 10 getting that up and down,” said Royak, who had never advanced past the Round of 16 in the 15 previous USGA championships he has played.
Then on the 586-yard, par-5 19th hole, Wilson reached the green in two. Royak, knowing he would likely need birdie to continue the match, hit a perfect 60-degree wedge from 90 yards to 5½ feet to set up a birdie, which tied the hole.
“I knew I had to hit it [hard],” said Royak. “I was in the rough, so that helped because I got a little bit of a jump.”
Said Wilson: “Unfortunately, Brady [Exber] took it all out of me earlier today [in the quarterfinals], and I really didn’t play very well. I was just hanging in there with everything that I had, but it wasn’t very good.”
Royak and Wilson were briefly interrupted by a 17-minute suspension due to a heavy downpour at 5:10 p.m., with the players on the 20th hole. It was the first time this week golf was interrupted for weather.
In the other semifinal, Newsom, an ophthalmologist who had to postpone several scheduled surgeries this week, looked in trouble when Cloninger, a former honorable mention NAIA All-American quarterback at Wofford College in the late 1970s, won holes 8, 9 and 11 to take a 2-up lead. He converted a long birdie on the par-4 ninth and added another birdie on the par-5 11th.
But Newsom, a 1986 graduate of East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., clawed his way back with a winning par on 13 and took advantage of Cloninger finding the penalty area near the green on 14 to tie the match. The two traded wins on Nos. 15 and 16 before Newsom delivered a clutch 9-iron, 170-yard downhill approach from a sidehill lie in the rough. The challenging 437-yard, par-4 18th statistically played the toughest in stroke play (4.67).
Newsom’s shot landed on the green, 18 feet above the flagstick. Cloninger, however, short-sided himself with his approach, his ball stopping in the rough between two right-greenside bunkers. His first pitch came up short of the green. Newsom then trickled his birdie putt to within 2 feet, and when Cloninger failed to hole his fourth shot, the Virginian calmly converted for the win.
“My friend Pat Tallent, who won this [in 2014], said, ‘Don't quit. Go to the end. You never know.’ That's what happened today. Rick is a good player and I just eked it out; we were both leaking oil a little bit coming in.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Newsom had bogeyed the hole in the quarterfinals against former Pinehurst No. 2 superintendent Paul Jett, 55, of Southern Pines, N.C., forcing the match to extra holes, where he made a winning par on the first playoff hole (No. 1 at Old Chatham).
“No, no,” said Newsom when asked if what transpired earlier in the day was on his mind playing 18 for a second time. “It didn't even remind me. I was just thinking about the shot that I had to hit.”
Added Cloninger of his 7-iron approach to 18: “[It] wasn't a nervy deal. I just didn't trust some things coming down. I finally hit a good tee ball there to get myself in a good position. He hits a great shot from where he was at. He's two feet away from being in really bad shape. I didn't execute when I needed to.”
Also in the quarterfinals, Wilson used an eagle on the par-5 14th and a birdie on the par-3 17th to edge Brady Exber, 63, of Las Vegas, Nev., 1 up. He knocked a 6-iron to 12 feet to set up the eagle on the 491-yard hole, and a 7-iron from 187 yards to 15 feet on No. 17. The birdie putt had nearly a foot of break, but Wilson judged it perfectly. On 18, his approach found the green and when Exber failed to convert from 35 feet, Wilson calmly two-putted for the win.
Royak produced his second-biggest margin of victory with a 6-and-5 decision over Walter Todd, 59, of Laurens, S.C. He opened match play on Monday with an 8-and-7 win over Kenneth Coutant. Royak won the first five holes and cruised home from there, playing the equivalent of 1-under-par golf over the 13 holes.
Cloninger broke open a tight match with wins on Nos. 7 and 8, the latter a conceded birdie for a 2-up lead at the turn. He extended his lead to 3 up with a winning par on No. 12, and then traded wins over three of the next four holes before tying the 17th to seal the victory.