Matthew McClean and Hugh Foley (Credit: USGA/Steven Gibbons)
For just the second time in USGA history, two international players from the same country advanced to a championship match. The fact that the competitors are from the Republic of Ireland in an event being conducted at Erin Hills – Erin is Gaelic for Ireland – made it all the more appropriate.
, a 29-year-old optometrist from Belfast, will sleep on a 2-up lead over Hugh Foley
, 25, of Dublin, halfway through the 36-hole championship match of the weather-delayed 41st U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship. Due to heavy rains last Sunday – 4 inches fell at Erin Hills – the schedule was adjusted to have the second 18 of the final contested on Saturday morning, two days later than planned.
Normally in a 36-hole final, players take a lunch break between rounds. This year, the finalists returned to the same house – they are staying at the residence of Foley’s caddie, Dan Benedum – and likely chatted about their performance at dinner.
“I haven't played a 36-hole final before, so I don't know what it's like to play 36 holes in a final, either,” said McClean when asked about sleeping on a lead. “But it sort of feels like … the last round of stroke play; a similar sort of feeling as that.
“It's basically all square. That's the way I'm looking at it. We both have everything to play for tomorrow, so we'll probably talk a bit about it.”
This is the second consecutive year the U.S. Mid-Amateur final has been contested over two days. Heavy fog extended the championship to Friday at Sankaty Head Golf Club in Siasconset, Mass. In 1954, the U.S. Women’s Amateur final at Allegheny Country Club in Sewickley, Pa., also was contested over consecutive days due to a thunderstorm.
Before Foley and McClean, two Canadians were the only players from the same foreign country to play for a USGA title. Judith Kyrinis defeated Terrill Samuel in the 2017 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur final at Waverley Country Club in Portland, Ore.
McClean and Foley are also the first male players from Ireland to reach a USGA final; Valerie Hassett lost in the 1998 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur championship match. Sometime before noon on Saturday, Foley or McClean will become the second Irish player to capture a USGA title in 2022, following Padraig Harrington at the U.S. Senior Open. Rory McIlroy (2011) and Graeme McDowell (2010), both from Northern Ireland, captured U.S. Open titles.
To reach the championship match, Foley eliminated Bryce Hanstad
, of Edina, Minn., 3 and 2, on Friday morning while McClean defeated Josh Persons
, of Fargo, N.D., by the same margin. Fog delayed the start of both matches by 20 minutes.
On Thursday, Persons, a past winner on PGA Tour Canada who was reinstated in 2018, had eliminated two-time and defending champion Stewart Hagestad
, as well as 2014 titlist and 2016 runner-up Scott Harvey.
What makes this final unique is that Foley and McClean traveled to the U.S. together and are sharing a rental car and a house. Their friendship was forged through golf, but has grown beyond the course, despite the four-year age difference.
“Insane,” said Foley of them both reaching the final. “We’ve been planning this for months. We heard Stewart Hagestad, No. 8 in the world [ranking], we were like, ‘I don't know, will we make the cut?’ You're traveling all that way and hoping you don't miss the cut. Me and Matt have spent every second of the trip together.”
Added McClean: “I'd say we'll talk to each other a bit, but it won't be a social round of golf. I'm sure we'll work it out, but it'll be fun either way.”
Earlier this summer, Foley edged McClean by two strokes to win the North of Ireland Men’s Open Amateur at Royal Portrush, shooting a pair of 68s on the weekend. Foley also won the South of Ireland Men’s Open Amateur at Lahinch, becoming the first to win both titles since Darren Clarke in 1990. Since then, he finished second in the Irish Closed Amateur and competed in a pair of European Challenge Tour events.
McClean represented Ireland in the recently completed World Amateur Team Championship and also lost a playoff in the Irish Men’s Amateur Open Championship, finished sixth in the Lytham Trophy and third in the Brabazon Trophy, which is awarded to the English Open Amateur Stroke Play chmpion.
McClean surged ahead on the inward nine of Friday’s opening 18 with three consecutive birdies – all conceded – from No. 12 as he took advantage of some sloppy play from his opponent. Still, McClean called his 206-yard, 7-iron approach shot from thick rough on the 12th hole that stopped 6 feet from the flagstick one of the best of his career.
Foley regrouped on No. 16, making a 30-foot birdie putt on the par 3, only to see McClean match him with a 13-footer. But on the par-5 closing hole, Foley gained one back when McClean made a mess of the hole, hitting eight shots before conceding Foley’s long birdie from the fringe.
“It's nice,” said Foley of having more than a 12-hour break between rounds. “I'll kind of enjoy the break now because I felt like nothing was really going for me out there, so it's nice to stop it and maybe reset tomorrow. Hopefully it does reset tomorrow.
“I'm 2 down, so you get to become more of an underdog that way.”
In his morning semifinal match, Foley never trailed after winning three consecutive holes from No. 3. Three times, Hanstad, a consumer data analyst for a healthcare company who was a three-time All-Mountain West Conference performer at Colorado State, cut the deficit to two holes, but he could get no closer.
McClean and Persons each won three holes over the first seven of their semifinal match before the former pulled away by claiming four of the next five, including birdies on the par-3 ninth and par-4 10th and 11th holes.
The second 18 of the 36-hole final match will begin at 7 a.m. CDT. Spectators are encouraged to attend, and admission is free.