__By Ryan Herrington
CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo.—If you need more proof that trying to predict the outcome of the U.S. Amateur is a fool's errand, here you go: When__Michael Weaver, a redshirt junior at California, faces__Steven Fox__, a senior at Chattanooga, in the 36-hole final Sunday of the USGA's oldest championship, it will be a showdown between the event's 60th and 63rd seeds.
That's not a reflection in the talent of the two finalists. It's an affirmation of the depth of the amateur game. It may seem like a cliche, but it's also the truth when people say that anybody who advanced to match play had a chance to win.
Even golfers who barely advanced. Both Weaver and Fox shot two-over 143s in stroke-play qualifying, finding themselves among a group of 17 players that had to return to Cherry Hills CC Wednesday morning to determine who would get the final 14 spots in the match-play bracket. Weaver squeaked in with a birdie on the third playoff hole to become Mr. 60. Fox made par on the fourth playoff hole to claim the 63rd ticket.
That was a distance memory when the two played in their Saturday semifinal matches.
Weaver, facing Alabama sophomore__Justin Thomas__, used a hot putter to birdie five of his first 10 holes and take a commanding 5-up lead. While Thomas, the 2012 college player of the year, clawed back to win the 12th, 14th and 15th holes to make Weaver sweat, a six-foot birdie on the 16th sealed the 21-year-old Fresno, Calif., native's 3-and-2 victory.
"To start like that in such a … I mean it's the biggest match I've ever played in ... that was an awesome feeling," said Weaver during an emotional post-round interview.
Conversely, Fox's match against Brandon Hagy, Weaver's college teammate at Cal, was a closer affair. Neither player ever had more than a 1-up advantage at any point in the match before the final hole. Fox, holding a 1-up lead, hit his approach shot from 206 yards on the par-4 18th, the ball landing a foot away before settling six feet below the cup to the thunderous applause of the large crowd watching. Hagy hit his second shot on the green, 45 feet above the hole, but when his birdie try rolled well past and he conceded his opponent's putt, Fox claimed a 2-up win.
"I was just trying to putit on the green and find a way to make par," said Fox of the 4-iron on the home hole. "Best shot of my life, by far."
Fox, a 21-year-old from Hendersonville, Tenn., was a 1-down to Hagy through 13 holes, having watched his opponent spray several tee shots but manage to get up and down on seemingly every hole. Hagy's luck ran out, however, on the 14th and 15th, where he made bogeys and allow Fox to wrestle back into the lead.
On the 16th, Fox had a shot at making it a 2-up advantage but missed an eight-foot birdie putt to halve the hole, then halved the 17th with a par before the theatrics on the 18th.
"It's a pretty amazing feeling right now," Fox said. "I'm enjoying the ride."
That Weaver is still around is a testament to perseverance. He had to go three under in his final eight stroke-play holes just to qualifying for the playoff. He had to overcome a 3-up deficit to win his second-round match against Patrick Rodgers, and then had to win the last two holes in his third-round match with__Albin Choi__ before claiming victory on the 19th hole.
Thankfully for Weaver's nerves, and those of his caddie/father, Bill, there wasn't a lot of palpitations from Weaver on the front side versus Thomas. Birdies on the first three holes, plus a par on the fourth hole, gave him a quick 3-up lead.
Thomas had a shot a taking a bit of momentum when he looked at an eight-foot birdie putt on the seventh hole that would have cut Weaver's lead to 2 up. But Thomas hit the putt too hard and let the opportunity slip away, a mistake that was magnified when Weaver holed a 35-foot birdie putt on the par-3 eighth to go 4-up in the match.
"If I would have made that [putt on No. 7], who knows what would have happened," Thomas said.
Still, Thomas hung tough, having pulled off comeback wins in three of his four previous matches, but eventually ran out of holes.
The wonder of Weaver winning was obvious as he hugged his dad on the 16th hole, tears in both of their eyes.
"From the playoff to now being in the final match," Bill Weaver exclaimed. "Wake me up when this is over."
Well, there's a least one more day to go.