News & Tours
August 30, 2011

Final thoughts from Erin Hills

__GATE B9, CINCINNATI AIRPORT--__What's the old cliche, "that's why they play the game?" It would appear to be a fitting one given the outcome of Sunday's final at the U.S. Amateur Championship.

I couldn't find anyone over the weekend who didn't think that Patrick Cantlay would be the last man standing on Sunday at Erin Hills GC. It wasn't any disrespect to eventual champion Kelly Kraft or the other semifinalists, Jordan Russell and Jack Senior. It was just that the 19-year-old UCLA All-American had been playing so well for so long this summer that it seemed as if it was his destiny to hold the Havemeyer Trophy.

How else do you explain the amazing comeback against Russell Henley in their second-round match? And the similarly impressive rally against Max Buckley in the quarterfinals?

What made Sunday's result so interesting was to see Cantlay, a young man who ordinarily shows the poise and maturity of a PGA Tour veteran, suffer from highly uncharacteristic mistakes that cost him the victory.

One up on Kraft with four holes to play, Cantlay stepped on the tee at the par-4 15th hole (set up 253 yards from the green), pulled out an 8-iron and proceeded to hit his drive into a fairway bunker. Forget for a second the decision to lay up, one questioned by some after the match*. With the memory of what happened on the hole in the morning 18, when Cantlay pulled a hybrid way left off the tee (the ball stopping behind the 16th tee box) and lost the hole, there is  some justification for the more conservative play in the afternoon. The surprise is that Cantlay hit the 8-iron into the bunker. It's a pretty simple shot, particularly for a player of Cantlay's caliber. To have pulled it off the tee was unexpected.

** including Kelly Kraft, who noted in his post-round press conference: "I thought it was a mistake. I mean that hole plays as a par-3 today. That's just not something I would have done. He plays different than me, though. … But I would have gone for it either way."*>

So now the match is all square heading to the 34th hole, and Cantlay faces a 15-foot birdie attempt from off the green on the par-3 hole when he makes his next unforced error: blasting the putt nearly eight feet by the cup. When Cantlay fails to make the comebacker for par, Kraft takes the 1-up lead. The shock isn't that it happened but that it happened at that point in the match, a time when you think the calm, cool demeanor of Cantlay's would hold up best.

The final mistake in my mind was Cantlay's tee shot on the par-5 36th hole, the young man pulling his drive into the left fairway bunker, forcing him to pitch the ball back into the fairway with his second shot. With his distance advantage off the tee, he had a shot at reaching in two (or getting close). For as unflappable as he had been all week, and the way he showed he could seize the moment in his previous comebacks, that he was playing his second shot from the sand surprised me.

Considering how disappointing it must have felt to finish the way he did, Cantlay handled himself well after the match. "I made back-to-back-to-back-to-back mental mistakes out there," he said with candid honesty, "and combine that with some poor physical shots, and I threw away the golf tournament on 15 and 16 and wasn't able to recover on 17 or 18."

I'm sure the loss will sting for some time—Cantlay's too much of a competitor for it not to. But, at the risk of trotting out another cliche, I truly believe the experience is going to make him better. I have seem few young players who handle themselves the way Cantlay does, who are able to process what's taking place on the golf course, good and bad, the way he can and use it to develop his game. (Give credit to Cantlay and his instructor, Jamie Mulligan, for this.) The negative part of it is the one-dimensional appearance he tends to display while playing. The positive part is that he's going to be a mighty good player for a long time to come.

Other quick thoughts from my week in cheese country:

The funny thing is that now, with the benefit of more than 24 hours to think about things, I find myself shaking my head at the choice even more. The LSU graduate did nothing on the golf course in 2011 to suggest that was not worthy of being among the 10 men that fly to Scotland Thursday with captain__Jim Holtgrieve__ to try and retain the Cup. He won a highly respected amateur tournament (Jones Cup), the biggest college tournament of the season (NCAA Championship) and came in second in an event on the third best professional tour in the world.

During Sunday's final, I saw several USGA officials talking on cell phones, no doubt discussing what to do with the final three picks. One of them told me mid-afternoon that no final decision had been made at that point. Obviously, the choice was a difficult one.

Peterson's comments earlier this summer about how college golfers could play with, if not beat, PGA Tour pros didn't ingratiate him with many folks, but they weren't the deciding factor that some might suggest. I'm not sure there was a true deciding factor. There were some questions (rightly or wrongly) regarding Peterson's personality that apparently weren't answered to the satisfaction of the selection committee.

If this was a team that played a six- or nine-month season, perhaps I'd be more understanding about this "intangible" being part of the selection process. But the Walker Cup is a two-day competition. The entire 10-man team will be together for a grand total of 11 days. I'm not sure that's enough time for an allegedly bad apple to have any effect on the attitude of an entire team. And that's only if you believe he's a bad apple. My conversations with a few players   among the early Walker Cup picks left me with the impression they would be fine with Peterson on the team.

I do think, as I did write in Golf World Monday, the biggest problem with not selecting Peterson is  the potential this might have on future college players who must mull whether to remain amateurs in hopes of being picked for the team or whether to turn pro soon after the end of the college season. To see someone make the conscious decision to wait, play as well as he did in multiple tournaments, be ranked No. 7 in the world in one amateur ranking and No. 9 in another, and still not get picked for the squad is going to make more than few talented players who could help future U.S. Walker Cup teams say thanks but no thanks.

Knost famously (or for some infamously) decided to turn down the major exemptions and turned pro in the fall of 2007 after playing in the Walker Cup. Kraft didn't definitively say he'd remain amateur for all three majors, but implied that the Masters would be an easy one to wait for. I get the sense the U.S. Open will be too. The British Open might be another kettle of fish.

Kraft's decision, in my mind, is a much easier one than Knost's. Knost had been playing at such a high level throughout the summer of 2007 in amateur events that I believe, as sacrilege as it is to say thanks but no thanks to the folks at Augusta National, he did the right think with turning pro. He needed to strike while the iron was hot in hopes of securing a PGA Tour card and a place to play in 2008. Kraft was already going to be going back to school this fall to try to wrap up his college degree. Holding off on going to Q school won't be shattering his pro plans in the short term.

"It's a shame, because I enjoyed the job, but what are you going to do," Loar said.

What Loar can do is hopefully take some satisfaction in the fact that he had two of his players reach the quarterfinals at Erin Hills (Buckley joining Kraft) and that three he coached won the U.S. Amateur titles (Hank Kuehne and Knost).

__Photo by J.D. Cuban  __