PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — In the most pressure-packed matches of their young lives, Cole Hammer and Isaiah Salinda combined for 11 birdies Saturday at Pebble Beach Golf Links, sank putts on top of their respective opponents and played well enough to reach the U.S. Amateur final.
They never stood a chance.
On a misty morning at the iconic course along the Pacific Ocean, the two could only watch helplessly as their dreams of playing in next year’s Masters and U.S. Open were dashed by a pair of golfers simply performing at a higher level, perhaps higher than they have ever known before.
Viktor Hovland, 20, of Norway, a senior at Oklahoma State, birdied his final five holes and dealt Hammer his second semifinal setback of the summer, winning 3 and 2. He’ll compete for American golf’s oldest trophy, a 36-hole final starting at 7:30 a.m. PDT Sunday, against UCLA sophomore Devon Bling, 18, of Ridgecrest, Calif., who outlasted Salinda 1-up.
No. 5 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, Hovland made eight birdies in 16 holes and never trailed against Hammer, the first player in 32 years to reach the semifinals of the U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Amateur in the same summer. Hovland's amazing run began at the par-3 12th hole when he stole an apparent win from Hammer by sinking a 20-footer. It ended with an eight-footer at the 16th that closed out Hammer, who did win the U.S. Amatuer Four-Ball in May and was coming off a victory in the Western Amateur.
Hovland, who helped the Cowboys win the NCAA Division I title in June, has trailed for just one hole over five matches, and that came early in his second-round win over Harrison Ott.
“First of all, the wind, it wasn't blowing as hard, and the greens were a little softer, so the conditions were definitely conducive to making birdies,” Hovland said. “But still, you've got to hit the shots, and you've got to make the putts. I think we just kind of fed off each other a little bit. He made a putt and then I answered, if not the same hole making a putt, I'd make a putt on the next hole, and we just went back and forth. Yeah, it was a really good match.”
Hammer, 18, of Houston, made five birdies but just couldn’t dent Hovland’s facade. “I'm not mad about the way I played, I'm just disappointed that I kind of ran into a buzz saw,” he said.
Likewise, Salinda, 21, of South San Francisco, Calif., played his best round of the week and yet he never led against his fellow Pac-12 golfer. Salinda plays for Stanford and Bling for UCLA. Both are competing in their first U.S. Amateur. Salinda took him down to the wire, but when he failed to birdie the 18th, Bling's three-putt for par at the last pushed him through.
“I’ve got no complaints,” Salinda said. “I played well today. That's all I could ask for. Devon played awesome.”
Indeed, Bling’s caddie, Andrew Larkin, assistant golf coach at UCLA, said he’s never seen him play better. (As an aside, Alan Bratton, the OSU head golf coach, is caddieing for Hovland this week.)
“You could see his game picking up and his confidence is growing, and he’s ready to go," Larkin said. "The talent has always been there for sure, and it’s great to see it coming out this week.”
“I definitely played well today. I wasn’t even counting score,” said Bling, who will be the underdog in the final at No. 305 in the WAGR. “I hit it incredibly well today, putted well. All aspects of my game were firing on all cylinders. It was a battle against Isaiah. He played really well himself. I was really happy to come out on top.
“I've been working extremely hard on my game, trying to make it really good in every single area, just so when I needed the shot, I'm able to hit it,” added Bling, who has been dedicating this week to his late mother, Sara, who passed away in 2013 but always wanted her son to play in USGA events. “Man, I don't know, it's just … I love feeling the pressure. I like being nervous out there and knowing that I've got to hit a good shot here, and I've got to make this putt. I love that feeling.”
He’ll feel a lot more of that today. So will Hovland.