Thrills and Spills at Cherry Hills

Day One of match play brings out the best in U.S. Amateur field

by Jon Rizzi

Connor Jones hits an approach shot on hole five during the round of 64 of the 2023 U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills C.C. in Cherry Hills Village, Colo. on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. (Chris Keane/USGA)

In 2012, at the last U.S. Amateur held at Cherry Hills, Steven Fox survived a 17-man playoff to earn the 63rd spot in the Round of 64. The unheralded 21-year-old Tennessean proceeded to stage one upset after another, emerging as the champion from a field that included the future winners of more than six dozen PGA Tour events.

At this year’s edition of the Amateur, for the first time since 2000, no playoff was needed to determine the initial 64-player field. But that doesn’t preclude a dark horse from potentially running the table or a favorite falling in an early-round knockout.

The first entry in this year’s dark horse sweepstakes is 60th-seeded Grant Smith, 27, of West Des Moines, Iowa. Throughout today’s match, the 6-foot-7 Smith, trailed or was tied with fifth-seeded Piercen Hunt, a Canadian playing in third U.S. Amateur. Smith’s birdie on 17 squared the match heading into the par-4 18th, where Smith said he hit “probably my best two shots of the day. I’d say 3 is a little better than the 7 that I made (on that hole) in stroke play.”

It was also better than Hunt’s 4 and sent Smith into the Round of 32 against David Ford, ranked fourth in the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR).

Ford’s twin brother Maxwell Ford also advanced, as did such top-rated WAGR players as Ben James (No. 6), Caleb Surratt (No. 7), Austin Greaser (No. 8), Nick Gabrelcik (No. 10) and the three stroke play medalists from Tuesday—Sampson Zheng, Jackson Buchanan and Blades Brown.

Zheng dispatched Preston Summerhays (No 19) 1 up, and Buchanan prevailed over Australia’s Karl Vilips, 2 up, despite playing with a bloody nose that had stained his clothes (“It makes me look badass,” he joked when a gallery patron pointed out the mess).

Main Attractions

Blades Brown reacts to making his putt on hole 17 during the round of 64 of the 2023 U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills C.C. in Cherry Hills Village, Colo. on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. (Kathryn Riley/USGA)

In the day’s first match against feisty Benton Weinberg of Maryland, the 16-year-old Brown won, 1 up, on the 18th hole.

Fans flocked to see the wunderkind, but the most anticipated battle of the day pitted WAGR No.1, Gordon Sargent, against No. 9, Nick Dunlap. Both hail from the same Alabama town, compete in the SEC (Sargent for Vanderbilt, Dunlap for Alabama) and will represent the U.S. in next month’s Walker Cup at St. Andrews.

After winning the first with a birdie, Sargent wouldn’t win another hole. Dunlap squared the match on 10, pulled ahead with a birdie on 11 and eventually won 2 up. “I’m spent, man,” Dunlap said after the match. “Obviously he’s the No. 1 player in the world for a reason. He’s a hell of a player. We were just kind of throwing punches all day long and see who could withstand them at the end.”

Going the Distance…

Nick Dunlap plays his second shot on hole 15 during the round of 64 of the 2023 U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills C.C. in Cherry Hills Village, Colo. on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. (Chris Keane/USGA)

Dunlap punched his ticket for a battle with Colorado’s own Connor Jones, who celebrated his 22nd birthday Wednesday with a decisive 4 and 3 victory over Argentina’s Vicente Marzilio, punctuated by a 50-foot birdie putt on hole 12 that put Jones 4 up. Jones, who has excelled thus far, has carried his own bag for the first three days of the Amateur. He declined a caddie offer for the Round of 64, not wanting to change his approach. However, anticipating he may have 36 holes (or more) to play, he suggested a looper would join him for Thursday’s Rounds of 32 and 16.

“I’m going to have to play some good golf if I want to keep going,” Jones said about his chances of advancing.

Two other Colorado players also played some good golf, but both failed to advance.

The first was University of Colorado junior Dylan McDermott, who went into the 18th hole tied with Auburn’s Jackson Koivun. With Koivun within eight feet of a birdie, McDermott’s left-to-right 20-foot downhill birdie attempt slid just left of the hole. Koivun drained the birdie for the win.

Dylan McDermott hits his second shot on hole one during the round of 64 of the 2023 U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills C.C. in Cherry Hills Village, Colo. on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. (Chris Keane/USGA)

…and Beyond

In the last match of the day to finish, Colorado Springs’ Colin Prater—a science teacher at Doherty High School and the winner of the 2020 Colorado Amateur and Colorado Stroke Play championships—waged an epic battle with the University of Arizona’s Rhyggs Johnston. Prater was up by one at the turn, then down by two after the 13th. His birdies on 14 and 17 tied the match.

With the honors on Cherry Hills water-lined 18th, Prater said his “thought process was just try to get the ball in play, get it in the short grass, put the pressure on (Johnston).” Instead, he hit it in the water left of the fairway. “And that just took all the pressure off of him.”

Playing it safe, Johnston bailed out right with an iron but then hit his approach way right of the green. Prater re-teed and hit a 3-wood to 201 yards, which, factoring the slope and wind, was playing 230. “I knew I couldn’t get 5-iron there, so I choked up and hit kind of a smooth 4-iron,” he said. “I knew I had to hit it right at it. It was probably the best swing of my entire life.”

He nearly holed the shot, leaving himself a delicate seven-foot bogey putt that he played “probably at least a foot out and rolled it right in the middle.” Johnston also made bogey, sending the match to extra holes—one of three matches on the day to go long.

On the first, Prater made par and conceded a par putt to Johnston that wasn’t what some in the gallery considered “within the circle of friendship.”

“I don’t regret it,” Prater said of the concession. “He putted well all day. I knew I was going to have to make birdie to win.”

He would do neither. Two holes later, on the 311-yard par 4 third—the same hole on which he first took the lead with a birdie during regulation—Prater missed a birdie putt and Johnston sank his.

Prater said his biggest disappointment “was that this experience is over. This experience has been the coolest thing on the planet, to have my little one and my wife and my parents and a ton of high school kids come out to watch me play today. To be able to just grind and stay in it and to force extras, I’m really proud of that.”

And is there a lesson Mr. Prater can impart to his students at Doherty? “I don’t really talk a whole lot about my golf,” he said. “But yeah, for sure, it’s a great life lesson, that when you get kicked in the teeth, just keep on fighting.”

THE MORE YOU KNOW: All players in the Round of 64 started their matches from the 340-yard “Palmer Tee”—so named for the teeing area from which Arnold Palmer drove the first green on the par 4 hole, igniting the closing-round 65 that won him the 1960 U.S. Open. A number of players drove it, many tried and missed long or wide left. For the Rounds of 32 and 16, the first hole will return to the same 395 yards it measured in Monday’s and Tuesday’s stroke-play qualifier.

To follow today’s matches at Cherry Hills, click here.

To catch the action on television:

Date/Day Time (MDT) Network Coverage
Aug. 17/Thursday 4-5 p.m. Peacock Round of 32 Matches
5-7 p.m. Golf Channel Round of 32 Matches
Aug. 18/Friday 3-4 p.m. Peacock Quarterfinal Matches
4-6 p.m. Golf Channel Quarterfinal Matches
Aug. 19/Saturday 1-3 p.m. Golf Channel Semifinals Matches
2-4 p.m. NBC Semifinals Matches
Aug. 20/Sunday 1-2 p.m. Golf Channel Championship Match
2-4 p.m. NBC Championship Match

 


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