PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club

The Loop

U.S. Four-Ball champs get over missing NCAAs by claiming a different national title


USGA/Fred Vuich

MAMARONECK, N.Y. -- Under different circumstances, SMU teammates Andrew Buchanan and Ben Baxter would have spent Wednesday evening racing to an airport, the memory of winning the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball title a few hours earlier at fabled Winged Foot Golf Club hopefully not becoming lost luggage as they hustled to catch a flight to the NCAA Championship in Oregon which begins later this week.

But a post-season ban against the Mustang men’s golf program—for violations under a former coach that took place before either Buchanan or Baxter were in school—gave them the luxury of relaxing and enjoying their 3-and-2 triumph over Brandon Cigna and Ben Warnquist in the 18-hole final on the East Course.

In savoring their victory, Buchanan and Baxter suggested they got the national championship they really wanted.

“This was kind of our replacement for NCAAs and it turned out to be a much better replacement than we could have imagined,” said Buchanan, a 21-year-old junior from Los Altos, Calif. “If you offered us an NCAA Championship at the beginning of the week or a USGA Championship, I think the USGA is the mecca of golf. And so to be able to win one of their championships is unbelievable.”

SMU men’s coach Jason Enloe, a competitor in the Four-Ball with partner Alex Buecking before being eliminated in the quarterfinals on Tuesday, had the same thought as he stuck around to see his two players rally from 4 down after five holes in their Wednesday morning semifinal match, winning six of their last nine holes with birdies to advance to the final before mounting one more come back again against Cigna and Warnquist.

“For the program, and for me to experience this with them was just a great experience for all of us,” Enloe said.

Key to Buchanan and Baxter’s success all week was their play on the back nine at the East Course, which hosted the match-play portion of the championship. The duo combined to shoot 14 under par (with match-play concessions) in their five matches, allowing them to overcome slow starts.

“We almost felt a little too comfortable getting down early in the match,” said Baxter, a 20-year-old sophomore from Flower Mound, Texas. “Eight through 18 we felt really comfortable with our clubs off the tee and our clubs in the green.”

The back-nine magic continued against Cigna and Warnquist. With the match all square through 11 holes, Baxter made a birdie putt form 12 feet on the par-5 12th—after snap hooking his drive into an adjacent fairway—to take a 1-up lead. Buchanan returned the favor on the par-4 15th when he rolled in a 12-foot birdie to go 2 up. The duo closed out the match on No. 16 with a par.

For Baxter, competing again was a joy in itself. When SMU’s postseason ban was announced last fall, Baxter decided take the 2015-’16 season as a redshirt year. He had played one tournament in September, so the school had to petition to get his redshirt status. After the NCAA initially denied he request, Enloe had the school appeal. Eventually, Baxter was granted the waiver—one of the few times the NCAA showed some lenience to the program.

That two more SMU players would win a USGA title shouldn’t be a complete surprise. Enloe says that Buchanan and Baxter have learned a good deal in the past year from watching former teammate Bryson DeChambeau go through an impressive run that included winning last year’s NCAA individual title and U.S. Amateur crown. Both players said that they took personal inspiration from DeChambeau’s accomplishments and sought him out for some match-play advice.

“He’s been texting us [all week],” Baxter said. “He honestly just told us to keep your pedal down the whole time. Pretty much basic advice, but coming from him it means a little more because he’s had such success in a USGA Championship, like the U.S. Am.”

There was other good fortune that the duo experienced during their stay at Winged Foot. It started when they connected with Frank Mara, VP of community relations for the New York Giants (and part of the Mara family that co-owns the football team). Buchanan befriended Juli Inkster a year ago at the inaugural Four-Ball Championships at Olympic Club outside San Francisco; she was trying to get the scoop on DeChambeau, who was playing that event. Inkster encouraged Buchanan to play this year, and when he and Baxter qualified, she had them get in touch with Mara, a Winged Foot member who agreed to have them stay at their house.

In the weeks leading up to the event, Mara emailed the players to give them course updates and general encouragement. So it was that Buchanan and Baxter, 49er and Cowboy fans, were wearing Giants-logoed clothing during their early matches.

It was Mara who also helped connect the players with Dwayne Cunningham, a local Winged Foot caddie who carried both of their bags throughout the week.

“We originally were just going to caddie for ourselves, we both kind of like being on our own,” Buchanan said. “But Mr. Mara said you really should have a caddie to help with these greens. And he got us in touch with Dwayne. I don’t think we could have won if we didn’t have him.”

Then there was the pair’s past experience at Winged Foot. In September 2013, the team took a trip to New York City, playing a couple of matches against Army and Navy’s golf teams at Winged Foot and nearby Fenway G.C., while taking in the sites. The team ingratiated itself with the membership, which explained the fairly boisterous following Buchanan and Baxter had Wednesday afternoon.

The victory was big for Buchanan and Baxter, the most prestigious titles each player has claimed. But it’s big too for the SMU golf program, hoping to put this season behind it and move forward.

Said Buchanan: “I think that the SMU golf team has gone through a lot the last few years and we’re a very close team, and those guys are just as good as us day in and day out. So I think that it’ll mean a lot to the team to be able to see us [and gain confidence].”