Courtesy of Wisconsin Golf Association
Winning the Wisconsin State Amateur Championship has been high on Piercen Hunt’s
list of goals since 2018, when he tied for fourth at Minocqua Country Club as a precocious 16-year-old and hung around to watch Harrison Ott beat Thomas Longbella in an epic eight-hole playoff.
“That was the point,” he said, “where I knew my game could hold its own against a lot of the guys older than me.”
Hunt missed the State Amateur last year because of a conflict with the Western Amateur, so he circled this week on his calendar. With humility that matches his talent, the rising sophomore at the University of Illinois admitted Thursday evening that, “I kind of had an expectation for myself for the week.”
In other words, look out, boys, I’m here to win.
And so, while Hunt made it look easy, cruising to a six-shot victory at Westmoor Country Club, the self-induced pressure made for a difficult four days. He looked unflappable on the outside, but on the inside, there was some flapping going on.
“I didn’t really get a lot of sleep the entire week, honestly,” he said. “It was difficult. A lot of nerves. Not a lot of sleep. Coming out to start the round this morning, having my hand shake a little on that first drive … it’s probably the most nervous I’ve ever been to start rounds for the entire week.”
Nerves? What nerves? Hunt started the final round by sticking his approach to 8 feet on No. 1 and rolling in the birdie putt.
“He came out and birdied one and I kind of knew I was going to have to do something pretty special today, because he was pretty locked in,” said Cameron Huss, a rising sophomore at the University of Wisconsin who was paired all four days with Hunt.
A double-bogey on the par-4 seventh gave a flicker of hope to his pursuers, but Hunt extinguished it with a clutch par save on the next hole, birdied the par-5 ninth and never looked back. He shot a 1-under 69 – one of just three sub-par rounds on the day – and finished the 72-hole tournament at 1-under 279.
The former two-time WIAA state champion at Hartland Arrowhead High School thus joined Bob Gregorski, Steve Stricker, Mark Wilson, Hunter Eichhorn and Longbella as the only players to win both the WSGA State Junior and State Amateur titles in the last 50 years.
“When I won the state junior a few years back, it was really big for me,” Hunt said. “Outside of high school golf, that was my first real big win and it helped me have some confidence that I was taking the right steps and making the progress I needed to make to get to the bigger (tournaments) and national events. To join the small list of the guys who have won both is really special to me.”
Hunt’s 72-hole score was nine strokes better than the 288 total that David Roesch posted in winning the 2004 State Open at Westmoor, and 11 shots better than the 290 that Casey Brozek posted in winning the 1991 State Amateur on the same course.
“He’s just a stud,” said Adam Garski, who played with Hunt and Huss in the final group and tied for fourth. “That’s all there is to it.”
Eichhorn, a rising senior at Marquette University and the 2019 State Amateur champion, closed with a bogey-free 66 and tied for second place with Adam Miller of Nekoosa at 5-over 285. Miller played the final 10 holes in 3-under and shot a 68, but neither player ever threatened Hunt’s lead.
“I mean, basically at that point it’s a one-man show,” Miller said. “Piercen decides his own fate. If he goes out and plays a good round, it’s very tough to have somebody catch him on a course like this. So, I’m not really worried about him. I’m more worried about my own game, doing what I can. I was able to get it around pretty good today.”
Hunt cruised through the first six holes at 1-under, building his lead to seven shots over Huss and eight over Garski, before he finally made a mistake. His drive found the right rough and his punch shot under a tree limb bounded over the green. He then hit a nice pitch to 10 feet but proceeded to three-putt for a double-bogey, missing a 3-foot comebacker for bogey.
“The short putt I missed on seven was more just a lack of focus,” Hunt said. “Just a lapse. That was one of the first times it’s happened to me all week, so pretty fortunate that I played almost four full rounds of golf without doing that.”
On the long eighth hole, converted from a par-5 to a par-4 for the tournament, Hunt hit a big drive but his approach trickled over the back of the green. He then stubbed his chip, leaving it some 20 feet short of the hole, but his par putt went dead in the middle.
‘You’re thinking OK, he’s sort of showing a little sign of weakness, but then he pours in the putt like a champ,” Garski said. “I think both Cameron and I needed to get out to a 3-, 4-under start to get within three (shots of the lead) and then if he does that, it’s a little game change. But with his six-, seven-shot lead he can afford that.”
Hunt ended what little suspense remained by rolling in a ticklish 18-footer from above the hole for birdie on the par-5 ninth. By then, it was obvious: nobody was going to beat him. He shot 1-under on the back nine, with eight pars and a birdie on the par-5 15th, where he hit a beautiful pitch over a greenside bunker to 3 feet.
“What stands out since he came back from his freshman year at Illinois is how calm he is, how poised he is,” said John Bauer Jr., Hunt’s swing coach for the last six years. “He just had a quiet confidence about him all week. He just looked the part all week. It was amazing.
“I don’t feel like he lets his bad shots get to him anymore. He just goes about his business. Very calm. Next shot. Amazing maturity for a 19-year-old.”
Hunt, who wasn’t able to crack Illinois’ lineup as a freshman but played as an individual in tournaments, said he has worked hard on his mental approach.
“Settling into rounds, putting results out of my mind, has been a huge focus for the last year and a half because I’ve gotten in my own way thinking about where I am in a tournament or what score I’m at – all the different things that can hurt you,” he said. “I did a really good job of managing my mental game this week and was able to make it pretty simple for myself.”
Eichhorn was able to climb into a tie for second with his 66. He played the final 36 holes in 3-under.
“I knew I was playing well after yesterday and I could put together a good round today,” he said. “Obviously, I was going to need some help from Piercen. But it was good to have a final round like this. It’s definitely a confidence booster going forward. Honestly, wherever I finish, whether it’s second, third, fourth, these last two days I’ve made a lot of progress, especially where I need to be mentally, my focus, my decision making. And I started to hit the ball a lot better.
“So regardless of my finish, I’m happy with how I played the last two days.”
Jack Schultz of Milwaukee, a perennial contender in the State Amateur and a three-time WSGA player of the year, tied for fourth with Garski. Schultz’s quintuple-bogey 9 on the 10th hole in Round 2 led to an 81; his other scores were 69, 68 and 71.
Huss closed with a 75 and finished sixth at 290. He was followed by two former State Amateur champions: Matt Tolan of Eau Claire, who won in 2017, shot a 71 and was seventh at 291; Longbella, the defending champion who plans to turn pro for the State Open next month, shot a 75 and was eighth at 293.
“I just learned that no matter how hard it plays, it’s really important to grind,” Huss said. “I learned I’m good enough to play with anyone in the state, really. I’d love to get one here soon.”
Huss is where Hunt was a couple of years ago, knocking on the door. His time will come.
As for Hunt? His time is now.
by Gary D'Amato, Wisconsin.Golf