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U.S. Amateur Four-Ball: Cal's Sampson Zheng and Aaron Du share medalist honors
Aaron Du and Sampson Zheng (USGA photo)
Aaron Du and Sampson Zheng (USGA photo)

Joe Cansler was headed to the scoring tent behind the 18th green of Kiawah Island Club’s Cassique on Sunday when he uttered the words, “best golf I’ve ever seen.” He wasn’t describing the play of his partner and fellow North Carolinian, Jeremy Ray, but what he saw the past five hours from a pair of University of California-Berkeley juniors – and one in particular – during the second and final round of stroke play of the 8th U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship.

Sampsonyunhe Zheng, of the People’s Republic of China, who is partnering with countryman Aaron Du, recorded eight consecutive birdies from No. 9 on his own ball en route to a championship-record-tying day and eventually a share of medalist honors with 2022 semifinalists Carter Loflin, 18, of Duluth, Ga., and Wells Williams, 19, of West Point, Miss.

Zheng and Du, both 21, carded a 10-under-par 61 to match the 18-hole scoring mark, while both medalists produced 36-hole totals of 16-under 126 to tie the mark first set in 2016 at Winged Foot Golf Club by current PGA Tour pro Brandon Matthews and Patrick Ross.

College freshmen Loflin (University of Georgia) and Williams (Vanderbilt) birdied their final four holes on Cassique to sign for a 9-under 62, and co-medalist honors for a second consecutive year. They are the first side to be a multi-medalist.

In Saturday’s first round, Kevin Grady and Andrew Sovero shot 61, while Loflin and Williams were one of two teams to register 61s a year ago on the Country Club of Birmingham’s East Course.

The two medalists finished one stroke ahead of Christopher Newport University teammates Robb Kinder and Alex Price, and full-time National Hockey League referee Garrett Rank and Joseph Deraney, both past U.S. Mid-Amateur runners-up.

The match-play cut came at 8-under 134, one off last year’s record, with 10 sides playing off Monday morning for the final two spots in the 32-team draw.

Despite a passing morning shower, the conditions were again ideal for scoring with virtually no wind.

Zheng, who will represent the International Team in this summer’s Palmer Cup at Laurel Valley Country Club in Ligonier, Pa., took full advantage of the benign conditions. Until Sunday, he had never enjoyed such a birdie run, a round in which he finished with 10 overall.

“That’s a personal record,” said Zheng, who attended The First Academy in Orlando, Fla., before matriculating at Cal. “I believe the next best was five in a row, so, yeah, I was pretty impressed with myself. Some of the pins were pretty [accessible] but I had a bunch of good numbers. After the rain, the winds died down a little bit and my putting heated up.”

Added Du: “When I play with him, this type of play is common. I’m not surprised when he’s locked in and seeing those long putts drop is huge for us.”

Loflin and Williams came into this year’s championship hoping to erase the sting of last year’s 7-and-5 semifinal defeat to eventual champions Davis Womble and Chad Wilfong. And during the spring schedule, neither had competed much for their respective college teams. Loflin will be Georgia’s designated substitute (sixth man) at next week’s NCAAs in Arizona, while Williams is not on Vanderbilt’s postseason roster.

“We were coming into this blind,” said Loflin. “We didn’t have a lot of expectations, but after we played really well at River in tough conditions [on Saturday], I think we were both thinking that we could do it again. Another USGA medal never hurts.” Kinder and Price, a quarterfinalist in last year’s U.S. Amateur, also arrived on property Saturday morning without the benefit of a practice round, having traveled from Kentucky after sharing second individual in the NCAA Division III Championship. Even without any course knowledge, the last side to register carried over that momentum to stroke play, and perhaps beyond.

“He had it going today, I didn’t play very well,” said Price of his partner. “I picked him up yesterday so that’s how you have to play four-ball.”

Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, now the lead NFL analyst for CBS, and his partner, 6-foot-10 University of Texas freshman Tommy Morrison failed to qualify for match play after the duo shot 1-under 70 on the River Course. They posted a 36-hole total of 137, three strokes off the cut. Morrison next heads to Scottsdale, Ariz., for the NCAA Division I Championships, which begin on Friday.

“It was great,” said Romo after his first USGA championship. “The USGA put on an incredible tournament. The course setup was amazing and just the way they go about the process, it’s just a special championship to be part of. It was rewarding.”

• • • • •

What’s Next

The 10-for-2 playoff for the final match-play spots will start Monday morning at 7 on Cassique’s 10th hole and will continue on the back nine until it is completed. The first Round-of-32 match is set to begin at 9 a.m. Two more rounds of match play will be contested Tuesday, with the semifinals and 18-hole championship match scheduled for Wednesday.

• • • • •

Notable

Scott Harvey and Todd Mitchell, the 2019 champions, have now made match play in seven of the eight championships.

Other notables to make match play included 1979 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Jack Larkin Sr. and his partner Hayes Brown; last year’s runners-up Drew Kittleson and partner Drew Stoltz; and 2022 semifinalists Evan Beck and Dan Walters. Brown and Larkin shot a 62 on Cassique. Kittleson also was the runner-up in the 2008 U.S. Amateur, while Stoltz hosts a radio show on Sirius/XM and podcast with two-time USGA champion Colt Knost.

Despite making a strong second-round charge with a 66 at Cassique, defending champions Chad Wilfong and Davis Womble were among three past winners to miss the cut. Joining them were inaugural winners Nathan Smith and Todd White, and 2016 winners Benjamin Baxter and Andrew Buchanan. Also failing to qualify were 2006 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Casey Watabu and his partner Matthew Ma; 2017 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Matt Parziale and partner Herbie Aikens; the father/son tandem of Marc and Tyler Apps; and former National Hockey League goalie and 2002 Olympic silver medalist Michael Dunham and his partner Jackson Kingman.

Two-time USGA champion Marcy Newton (1995 U.S. Girls’ Junior and 2000 U.S. Women’s Amateur) is serving as the caddie for her boyfriend Joseph Cansler. The University of North Carolina graduate retired from the LPGA Tour in 2013. She grew up at the same golf course in Thomasville, N.C. (Colonia Country Club) as three other USGA champions: 2022 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball winners Chad Wilfong and Davis Womble, and 2003 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur champ Amber Marsh Elliott.

John Engler competed as a solo side during stroke play, as his partner, Stephen Behr Jr., was attending his best friend’s wedding and could not get to Kiawah Island until Sunday night at the earliest.

Robb Kinder and Alex Price had a good excuse for arriving just in time for their Saturday afternoon starting time on the River Course. The NCAA Division III Championship in Nicholasville, Ky., ended on Friday, where they tied for second individually for Christopher Newport University, which finished sixth as a team. Price advanced to the quarterfinals of last year’s U.S. Amateur at The Ridgewood Country Club.

Kiawah Island Club’s director of golf Dylan Thew came up with a unique idea for a player gift. A local artist, Dave Basden, was commissioned to paint the clubhouse and 18th hole at Cassique, which hangs in the foyer. So Thew had replicas produced on a piece of canvas and the club gave each of the 256 competitors one as part of their gifts when they registered.

Roy Williams, who coached the University of North Carolina to three NCAA basketball titles during his hall-of-fame career, served as the guest speaker at the players’ reception on Thursday night at the River Course. Chris Randolph and Jordan Phillips, the South Street partners who own Kiawah Island Club, did the question-and-answer session with the 72-year-old Williams.

by David Shefter, USGA

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ABOUT THE U.S. Amateur Four-Ball

The U.S. Amateur Four-Ball, the newest USGA championship, was played for the first time in 2015 at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, Calif. The event, which has no age restriction, is open to those with a Handicap Index of 5.4 or lower. It is one of 14 national championships conducted annually by the USGA, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.

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