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The $600,000 match at Erin Hills

PatCantlay1.jpgERIE, Wis.—They played the $600,000 match at Erin Hills GC Thursday afternoon during the second round of the U.S. Amateur. Somehow, it lived up to its big-money label.

After five hours of tension-filled, "can-you-believe-that" action, Patrick Cantlay calmly rolled in a four-footer for par to put away Russell Henley on the 21st hole, making sure his rally from a 2-down deficit with two holes remaining did not go for naught.  

With their impressive performances in various professional tournaments this year, Cantlay (right) and Henley would have combined to earn a little more than that six-figure sum if they were not playing as amateurs. Cantlay had made the cut in four PGA Tour starts (all top-25 finishes, including a top 10 at the RBC Canadian Open). Henley won a Nationwide Tour event and played on the weekend for the second straight year at the U.S. Open.

Through the (un)luck of the draw, the future U.S. Walker Cup teammates, though, were forced to play each other early in the USGA's oldest championship. To say it was one of the best match in the 116-year history of the competition would be hyperbole, but it was certainly entertaining.

Photo by J.D. Cuban

* Over the course of 21 holes, the two made 13 birdies and two eagles, offset by just four bogeys.

* Three different times they halved holes with birdies, the two shooting matching 68s before going to extra holes.

* Just three times all day did a par win a hole.

"It was the craziest match I have ever been a part of," said Cantlay, a 19-year-old from Los Alamitos, Calif., who'll start his sophomore year at UCLA next month. "If you told me all that stuff would have happened the way it did, I wouldn't have believed you."

It started with the two of them halving the par-5 first hole with birdies, a sign both Cantlay and Henley, a 22-year-old from Macon, Ga., who wrapped up his All-American college career with the Bulldogs this spring, were going to be up for the challenge.

A Henley bogey after missing a short par putt on the second hole gave Cantlay a 1-up lead, but Henley's putter would hold up just fine when he made birdie putts of 20-feet on the fifth and sixth holes to claim a 1-up advantage of his own.

After halving the seventh with birdies, and the eighth and ninth with pars, the match returned to all square on the 10th hole when Henley couldn't get up and down from behind the green for a par.

It was then that the match took an unusual wrinkle. When walking to the 11th tee Henley developed a bloody nose, forcing him to play the next few holes with a tissue in one nostril.

"I got hit in the nose twice in high school playing basketball," Henley said. "Ever since then it gets dry and seems to start bleeding. It was definitely a little bit annoying having to deal with that and play. But I didn't get upset and handled it pretty well. I'm proud of myself for that."

Indeed, Henley made a par on the 11th hole to retake a 1-up lead, an advantage he maintained during the heart of the back nine.

It seemed that it would turn out to be Henley's day when he rolled in a 16-foot birdie effort on the 16th hole, putting him at dormie 2.

But then Cantlay decided it was his time to turn up the volume on the drama. After hitting his approach shot 10 yards short of the green on the 17th hole, Cantlay took out the pin and holed his chip for a birdie to force the match to the par-5 18th hole. He then proceeded to hit a stellar tee shot in the fairway while Henley's tee ball found a fairway bunker. Henley pitched out, then hit his third just over the green while Cantlay's second shot came to rest 18 feet from the hole. When Henley failed to make his birdie try and Cantlay rolled lagged his eagle to two feet, the match returned to the first tee for extra holes.

Both players reached the par-5 first hole's green in two shots, Cantlay's ball finishing 30 feet from the hole, Henley's 20 feet away. When Cantlay's eagle try caught the edge of the cup and fell in, a huge ovation came from the crowd. Even Cantlay couldn't help but be excited, letting loose an uncharacteristic fist pump from the normally stoic player.

"That's the most emotion I think I've ever shown on the golf course," Cantlay admitted.

Amazingly, Henley wasn't phased. Having seen the speed of Cantlay's putt, he felt comfortable over his own, rolling it into the heart of the hole before letting out a shout and fist pump of his own.  

"He rolled it in and it was pretty loud," Henley said. "I just didn't want to go out like that. I felt like I had a good read on it. I'm not going to give up."

While walking to the second tee box, the two players finally acknowledge to each other just how special a match this turning out to be. "He was walking up to the tee and I was already there, and he said, 'Nice putt,' " Cantlay said. "And we both kind of smiled and gave each other a fist bump."

After halving the 20th hole with pars, the two stepped to the tee box on the par-4 third hole. Cantlay's drive found the left rough while Henley hit his safely in the fairway. It was his second shot, however, that Henley wished he had over again.

With a gap wedge, Henley tugged the approach left of the green into a ugly lie in the bunker. Despite the opening, Cantlay unexpectedly hit his second shot into the front bunker.

Henley barely got his third shot on to the green, leaving himself a 20 foot par attempt. Cantlay blasted his shot to four feet. When Henley's putt missed right of the hole, Cantlay's par conversion closed things out.

"I knew it was going to be the hardest match," Henley said. "Patrick is a steady player, obviously. It's definitely a tough loss. I thought I had it going there pretty good for a while. Golf is a pretty hard game so I'm not going to beat myself up too bad. I thought I fought pretty hard."

Amazingly, Cantlay can't take too much solace in his hard-fought victory. He gets to play Tom Lewis, the low amateur from the British Open, in the third round Friday morning.

Is this one of the best U.S. Amateurs in recent memory? Join the conversation on our partner site, GolfWRX.com.

****

U.S. Amateur Championship
Round of 16/Friday (all times Central)

7:30 am—Bobby Leopold vs. Jordan Russell
7:40—Peter Uihlein vs. Scott Langley
7:50—John Peterson vs. Max Buckley
8:00—Patrick Cantlay vs. Tom Lewis
8:10—Blake Biddle vs. Kelly Kraft
8:20—Patrick Rodgers vs. Sunit Jung
8:30—John Hahn vs. Jack Senior
8:40—Ben Geyer vs. Jordan Spieth

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July 28, 2014

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