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Short-game prowess propels Fitzpatrick to Amateur final

By Ryan Herrington

BROOKLINE, Mass.—
Watching his 18-year-old son Matt play golf has always been a challenge for Russell Fitzpatrick. A year ago at British Boys' Amateur, Russell said he didn't see a shot for the entire 36-hole final, walking instead a hole ahead of the action and letting the crowd alert him to the fact that Matt had won the title.

In the same vein Saturday during the semifinals of the 113th U.S. Amateur, when Matt was struggling to find the greens during his match against Canada's Corey Conners at The Country Club—yet grinding out up and downs for par on seemingly every hole—Russell decided enough was enough.

"After 13 holes, I went into the clubhouse," he said patting his heart as if to convey his nervousness. "I could just as easily watch from there."

What he missed was a continuation of a short-game performance the envy of any PGA Tour pro. On a day when he hit just one green on the first nine holes and just five for the round, Matt used a trust 58-degree wedge and a reliable putter to still shoot the equivalent of two under par in defeating Conners, 2 and 1, and earning a spot into Sunday's 36-hole final.

His opponent will be Australia's Oliver Goss, a 2-up winner in a match against his countryman and close friend Brady Watt.

The good news for Goss, a 19-year-old who'll start his sophomore season at Tennessee this fall? It would seem hard for Fitzpatrick to repeat his stellar performance around on the greens for a second straight day. On the 12 holes Fitzpatrick failed to hit in regulation, he still made eight pars in addition to chipping in for a birdie that helped swing the momentum in his favor.

"I think my short game was probably the best of my life I think," said the young man who claimed low amateur honors at last month's British Open. "Sort of every chip and putt I looked at was close."

Conners actually jumped out to a 2-up lead after four holes, taking advantage of the only two poor chips Fitzpatrick hit all day that resulted in bogeys on the third and fourth holes. From there Fitzpatrick steadied himself when he rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt on the par-3 sixth (his first GIR of the day) to win the hole. He followed it with a clutch 15-foot putt to save par on the seventh for a halve and then took squared the match when his chip from a gnarly lie behind the eighth green trickled 14 feet into the cup for a birdie.

Fitzpatrick took the lead on the par-4 10th hole when he hit his approach to three feet and Connors eventually conceded the birdie. Fitzpatrick stretched it to 2 up on the 13th hole when he stuffed his approach to three feet and made the birdie.

Internally, Conners, a rising senior at Kent State, might have been wondering when his opponent. Externally he continued to grind. Still 2 down heading to the par-3 16th, he watched FItzpatrick's tee shot find the front right bunker and proceeded to hit his shot to five feet. When Fitzpatrick still managed to save his par, Conners topped him by rolling in the birdie and cut into the lead.

But on the 17th hole, made famous by Francis Ouimet's clutch birdie putts in the final round and in the playoff to win the 1913 U.S. Open, Conners found the infamous part of the hole off the tee: the Vardon bunker left of the fairway on the dogleg par 4 where Harry Vardon left his tee shot en route to losing said Open to Ouimet.

Conners' approach was short of the green after Fitzpatrick had hit the fairway and then his second shot on the green 15 feet from the hole. Although Conners played his third shot smartly, hitting the chip long of the hole but using the greens natural back to front contour to get it within three feet, it wouldn't matter. Fitzpatrick calmly drained his putt for the birdie to win the hole and match.

"Anytime he was in a difficult place where we had little chance of getting it close, he hit an unbelievable little flop shot or pitch shot and played right beside the hole," Conners said. "When you opponent does that … when in a difficult spot [he] pulls off a great shot, it kind of deflates the tires a little bit."

Greeting Fitzpatrick on the 17th green was his mother, Susan, who hugged both Matt and her other son, 14-year-old Alex, who is also part of the story as Matt's caddie this week. While a standout golfer in his own right set to play for the England under-16 squad this fall, Alex is still a novice caddie.

On the first hole, after Matt used the 58-degree wedge from a bunker around the green, the club somehow didn't make it back into Matt's bag. The brothers noticed it was missing on the par-3 second hole when Matt's drive went over the green and he wanted to use the club for his second shot. USGA officials retrieved the missing wedge from the first green and shepherded it back to Matt, the crowd providing mild applause as Alex stood a little red-faced.

"By the end of it, it was a laugh, but at the start I was very angry, yeah," Matt said. "It was a good job I got up-and-down because otherwise maybe I would have been a bit more angry."

The funny part about Matt's statement is that "angry" hardly seems to be an emotion he possesses. His even-keel demeanor has set the tone for him this week, helping him cruise through the match-play bracket.

Unfortunately for Russell, even-keel is not how he feels while Matt is playing. But after Matt's triumph, Russell greeted his son outside the clubhouse and expressed his pride in his accomplishment, particularly the perks that come with reaching the finals: an exemption into the 2014 U.S. Open and a likely invitation into next April's Masters.

"We've applied for tickets to the Masters for four straight years now and never won the ballot," Randall said. "If he gets the invite, I think we'll be able to get tickets this time."

But will he actually watch his son while he's playing Augusta National.

"Oh yeah," he said. "I won't miss that."   
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