Olympic Club's debutante ball
SAN FRANCISCO--The 107th U.S. Amateur Championship has turned into a bit of a debutante ball this week at Olympic Club. While Colt Knost is going for history, trying to become just the sixth player to win two USGA title in the same year, the three other remaining players--Alabama's Michael Thompson, Lamar's__Casey Clendenon__ and Texas' Jhonattan Vegas--have had success at the collegiate level, but advancing to the semifinals of the nation's oldest amateur event is likely the highlight of their golfing careers to date.
"I really don't know if I've played anything up to this standard," Clendenon after defeating Eddie Olson, 4 and 3, in their quarterfinal match Friday.
One down through the sixth hole, Clendenon squared the match with a birdie on the seventh and proceeded to win the ninth, 11th, 13th and 15th holes to run away with the victory and advance to the semifinals.
Truth be told, the 2006 Southland Conference player of the year from Katy, Texas, knows he's a bit lucky to have gotten this far. When a fog delay pushed back the finish of stroke-play qualifying into Wednesday morning, Clendenon had three holes to play. He proceeded to double bogey the first, putting him into a 17-player playoff for the final six spots in the 64-player match-play field. He then made a birdie on the second playoff hole to advance.
"Once I got through that I just told myself anything can happen in match play," Clendenon said, "so just kind of stay patient and here we are."
Clendenon will face Thompson Saturday after the 22-year-old rising senior from Tucson beat Derek Fathauer, 5 and 4. The turning point in that match came on the 286-yard, par-4 seventh hole. Thompson, already 1 up, drove the green with a driver, his ball stopping 14 inches from the hole to win it with a conceded eagle. "[It] was a nice gift, because you don't expect to hit it that close," Thompson said. "Even if I was on the green there, it's very difficult to get it on. It just worked out and gave me a little bit of momentum going into the back nine."
Thompson is an interesting story of patience and perseverance, having lived through the destruction of Hurricane Katrina first hand while playing golf for Tulane. In the immediate aftermath of the 2005 storm that pummeled New Orleans, he lost his Honda Civic and a few photos. Eventually, though, he lost his golf team as the school decided to disband the team. He ultimately transferred to Alabama, where he had a standout junior season that culminated last June with a T-4 finish at the NCAA Championship. He continued that momentum this summer with a runner-up finish at the Players Amateur.
"He's just an all-around solid player," Fathauer said. "I can't think of anything he doesn't seem to do well."
Yet, Thompson is still not always mentioned among the list of top American amateurs, something he takes in stride. "Sometimes I feel like I would like a little bit more recognition," said Thompson, a former Eagle Scout. "But at the same time it kind of gives me that little bit of edge to go out and prove to everybody that I'm one of the best players out here. And I try not to worry about it a whole lot. I've always been under the radar my whole life in golf."
The same can be said for Vegas, a 3-and-1 winner over Cheng Tsung Pan. Vegas who was introduced to golf by his father, a former caddie, learned the game in his native Venezuela while playing on nine-hole courses built amid oil fields. He eventually made his way to the U.S. to learn English and hopefully enroll in an American college. Living in Houston, he eventually landed at Texas where he just finished his senior year having already been the Venezuelan Amateur champion and hoping to for another national title.
"I really trust my game right now," said Vegas, who has yet to trail in a match since his opening-round face off with Clifford Blanchard. "I'm not afraid to play here.
Meanwhile, the player with the most confidence is also the one with the most experience. Knost, Vegas' opponent Saturday in the semifinals and the reigning U.S. Amateur Public Links champion, continues to have his way with opponents in match play competitions, beating Nick Taylor, 5 and 4, in a match that could have been even more lopsided. Just twice was the 22-year-old Dallas native not in the fairway as he made five birdies to knock off the Canadian Amateur champion.
"I've just been keeping it in the fairway," Knost said. "If you keep it in the fairway, you really don't have that long of irons into these greens. That hard part is getting it in the fairway though. But once you do that, you can attack."
Knost admits that with his success this past season in college golf--he was the Conference USA player of the year and a third-team All-American having won three events his senior year--along with his victory at the APL, he has gained a measure of confidence. "I feel I'm one of the top players out there," Knost said. "Maybe others don't agree. But I think I've proven a lot out here."
As have his semifinal compatriots.
â¿¢ In four matches to date, Colt Knost has won the first hole all four times, making birdies three days and a par in the opening round.
â¿¢ While never having been to San Francisco previous, Casey Clendenon has been a bit of a home body here this week in the Bay Area, staying with a host family. Asked if he had seen any of the sites, he noted: "This is it. Olympic Club."
â¿¢ Clendenon is indeed used to close calls in this year's. Not only did he get through the one for his spot in the match play field here at Olympic last Wednesday but he just made it through 36-hole sectional qualifying in Louisiana by one stroke after opening with a 40 on his front nine.
â¿¢ When Jhonattan Vegas beat 15-year-old Cheng Tsung Pan of Chinese Taipei, he eliminated the youngest U.S. Amateur quarterfinalist since 14-year-old Bobby Jones in 1916.
â¿¢ Vegas could have survived a look-a-like contest with Tiger Woods today, dawning the same outfit Woods typically wears on Sundays. "I just felt like today was the right day to wear [the red shirt]," Vegas said. "I think tomorrow I'm going to wear orange. That's my second luckiest color."