USA wins Spirit International Amateur

TRINITY, Texas (Nov. 5, 2011) -- When you beat a field the best amateurs in the world by 10 shots, as the U.S. Team did Saturday at the sixth playing of The Spirit International at Whispering Pines Golf Club, there’s really not much left to say.

American Nathan Smith found some fitting words, however.

“That was a perfect ending to an amazing week,” said Smith, who ignited the final rally with a tap-in eagle on the 14th hole that pushed the U.S. Team to a lopsided gold medal performance in the coveted International Team Division. The Americans posted a final score of 31-under par in the 72-hole, best-ball stoke play championship.

Argentina and Mexico tied for the silver medal at 21-under, and Korea took home the bronze with a score of 20-under par. For the U.S., this was the second straight team title and third overall. The Americans also won gold in 2003.

Under sunny skies and perfect playing conditions, the U.S. started the final round with a three-shot lead. They played textbook team golf throughout the day and finished with a a flurry. Smith, Kelly Kraft, Austin Ernst and Emily Tubert played the final five holes— considered by many as the best closing stretch in Texas—at 5-under par, including Smith’s eagle and a 35-foot bomb for birdie by Ernst on the 18th hole.

“This is just awesome,” said Ernst, who along with Tubert also claimed the bronze in the Women’s Team Division. The U.S. Team shot a combined 11-under in the final round and suffered only one team bogey.

“When you’re in the lead by three shots going into the final day, playing mistake-free golf is key,” Ernst said. “You want someone to have to come take it from you. But we played pretty flawlessly today and didn’t let that happen.”

Mexico mounted the biggest threat, playing 10-under as a team to vault from seventh place into second. Paced by the stellar play of Carlos Ortiz and Sebastian Vazquez, Mexico trailed the U.S. by just four shots before Smith took aim at the green on the gorgeous par-4 14th hole that plays over an inlet of Lake Livingston.

“The marker said 392 yards, but it was downwind and I cut the corner,” said Smith, a 33-year-old lifetime amateur who has won three national championships as USGA Mid- Amateur. “Kelly hit a great drive down there and I knew he was going to make par or birdie. He turned me loose, and I went for it.”

Smith’s drive hit the middle of the green, rolled up a slope and came back down to finish one foot from the pin. He tapped in the eagle putt to get the U.S. to 28-under par. Smith then drained an 11-foot birdie on No. 15 to give the Americans a comfortable six-shot lead with three holes to play. They finished in style, carrying the American flag over the stone bridge that leads to the 18th green to the chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” from the excited gallery.

“There has been some talk recently about the American teams’ ability to close out these kinds of tournaments,” said U.S. captain David Fay, the former executive director of the USGA. “This great team punctuated a fabulous week and showed that Americans can still close.”

Smith and Kraft did more than that. Their final round combined score of 8-under-par 64 lifted them into rarified air. The talented duo won the Men’s Team Division at 18-under 270. They also tied five other players for the Men’s Individual title. The American men join Americans Paula Creamer, Lorena Ochoa and Lexi Thompson and England’s Daniel Willett as the only players in the history The Spirit to win three gold medals in a single competition.

“This was a bit of redemption for me and Nathan both,” said Kraft, the reigning U.S. Amateur and two-time Texas Amateur champion. “We both played for the U.S. in the Walker Cup, but we lost. Everyone said we were the heavy favorites over there, but we didn’t get it done. Playing for your country is such a special honor, but you really want to win. It feels great to take the gold here at The Spirit.”

The U.S. was so dominant in the final round that it would be easy to overlook Mexico’s performance. But the Mexicans played nearly as well as their neighbors to the north. Ortiz said they will head home content with the silver medal.

“This feels great,” said Ortiz, who won the 2011 individual Sun Belt Conference title at the University of North Texas. “I’m not surprised, because we knew we could win this tournament. Maybe not this year, but we will be back.”

Mexico also won silver in the Men’s Team Division, tying with the gritty Canadians at 16- under par. Canada’s Garrett Rank fought through a stomach virus and dehydration that sent him to the hospital for several hours after the first round. Japan won the bronze medal in the Men’s Team Division.

The Korean women won gold in the Women’s Team Division with a score of 15-under par. Argentina, led by the torrid play of potential future LPGA star Victoria Tanco, took silver in the Women’s Team Division at 14-under. The U.S. women took the bronze.

Tanco, who recorded a final round hole-in-one on the 159-yard par-3 third hole, won the Women’s Individual title. She made 16 birdies and the eagle on the week. Tanco, a four-time participant in the Women’s U.S. Open as an amateur, heads to the final stage of LPGA Qualifying School on Nov. 30.

“I chose this as my final amateur tournament because it is so important and special,” Tanco said. “I enjoyed my amateur career and look forward to what comes next.”

Germany’s Sophia Popov won the silver in the Women’s Individual Division, and Korea’s Kyu- Jung Baek won the bronze.

The Men’s Individual competition finished in a logjam. Seven players tied for the gold medal, including Kraft, Smith, Ortiz, Thomas Pieters from Belgium, Mackenzie Hughes from Canada and South Africa’s Ruan de Smidt.

Four competitors tied for men’s individual silver medal: Lorenzo Scott, Italy; Clement Sordet, France; Hideto Kobukuro, Japan; and Mexico’s Vazquez. Another six tied for the men’s individual silver medal, including Rank, Ireland’s Reeve Whitson, France’s Joel Stalter, German Benedict Staben, Brad Moules from Australia and Kaster Kjaer Estrup of Denmark.

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ABOUT THE The Spirit International Amateur

The Spirit International Amateur Golf Championship is world class golf event played every other year. It features the world’s best amateur men and amateur women golfers as they represent their respective country in team and individual competitions. The 96 participants enjoy an Olympic-like experience from the Opening/Closing Ceremonies, international village and competing for gold medals.

The World Health & Golf Association and Texas Golf Association invite 24 countries from six continents to participate. Established in 2001, The Spirit is a biennial event that alternates tournament years with the World Amateur Team Championships.

Part of the uniqueness of the Spirit International are the five simultaneous competitions: Combined International Championship, Men’s Team Championship, Women’s Team Championship, Men’s Individual and Women’s Individual.

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