PINEHURST, N.C. — John Augenstein came to the Pinehurst Resort with two goals, the second of which was to win the U.S. Amateur. You can only image, then, how important the first one is to the 21-year-old Vanderbilt senior-to-be.
“The Walker Cup is just really the peak of amateur golf,” Augenstein said. “It’s the biggest accomplishment. It’s being able to say that you played on the Walker Cup team, that’s something you can say for the rest of your life.”
With a pair of victories Thursday on the famed No. 2 course against golfers who are either already on the U.S. team (Akshay Bhatia, 4 and 2, in the second round) or are on the short list to make it (Ricky Castillo, 1 up, in the third round), Augenstein has positioned himself well to also be traveling to Royal Liverpool in three weeks.
Oh, and he’s also in the quarterfinals in the biggest individual amateur tournament in the world.
In his three seasons at Vanderbilt, the native of Owensboro, Ky., has developed a reputation as a match-play dynamo. In his play at the SEC and NCAA Championship, Augenstein has an 8-1 record. His overall record in match play, including all competitions since spring 2017, is 15-3-1.
Yet ask him what makes he so good in the format, and he doesn’t have a great answer. “I’m just a big competitor,” Augenstein said. “I love going up against anybody. I’m not afraid to win, and I’m not afraid to lose. It’s just something I’ve always been good at.”
Part of it has to do with his solid iron and wedge play, which helped him overcome what he described as a few loose drives in the morning match with Bhatia. After going 3 up through eight holes, Augenstein had to regroup when the 17-year-old junior cut the lead to 1 up. Augenstein then won the 12th 14th and 16th holes to close things out.
In the afternoon, Augenstein similarly raced out front of Castillo, an 18-year-old who will be an SEC rival at Florida this fall, taking a 4-up lead through eight holes. And Castillo similarly didn’t fade away, winning the 10th, 11th and 12th holes. Once again, though, Augenstein made sure that the lead never slipped away entirely, keeping the pressure on his opponent. He made solid pars on the 15th, 16th and 17th holes, then a nifty up-and-down par save on the 18th to win the match.
Augenstein says he was undaunted by the lineup he had to face on Thursday. “My swing coach, Matt Killen, told me that, ‘You have to beat the best to be the best.' I’ve always played really well in tough matches because I like to think I’m going to beat them no matter what.”
Still, staying focused mentally was a challenge earlier in the summer, the magnitude of trying to make the Walker Cup team getting in the way of his game. He struggled in a few early amateur tournaments before having a conversation with his college coach, Scott Limbaugh, and the family.
The group noted that while the intention of “not thinking about” making the team sounded good, it was actually hurting his focus.
“I just kind of decided that’s what I want, is to make the team, so I need to focus on that and go get it and not just kind of let it happen,” Augenstein said. “My attitude hasn’t necessarily changed. It’s just that’s kind of what I’m working toward instead of just letting it happen.”
Just letting it happen might not only get him picked for Team USA, but it might earn him the Havemeyer Trophy. Augenstein faces another junior golfer, Palmer Jackson, in the quarterfinals on Friday.
“I think I made a good statement, but I’ve still got to beat some guys, and so I don’t think anything is given,” Augenstein said. “You’ve got to earn it.”
He seems well on his way to doing that.