If Ben “Bubba” Dickerson were a gambling man, he would have left East Lake Golf Club following this year’s U.S. Amateur Championship and made his way to the nearest casino. He would take everything he owned and put it all down on No. 17 on the roulette wheel.
If that wasn’t his lucky number before last week, it has to be now.
It was the 17th hole that carried the 20-year-old from Hilliard, Fla., through all but one of his matches, including the 36-hole final Aug. 26 when he overturned a five-hole deficit to score a 1-up victory over Robert Hamilton of Carmichael, Calif., capturing the 101st U.S. Amateur title.
“I guess you can say 17 was my hole all week,” said Dickerson, who as a sophomore tied for 11th in helping lead Florida to the NCAA Championship in May. “That’s definitely been my hole.”
His birdie at the 17th in the morning 18 holes enabled him to cut Hamilton’s lead to 2 up, and his par in the afternoon put the match at all square. It set up his 15-foot title-clinching birdie putt on the 36th hole, which, while providing an exciting finish, was pretty much anticlimactic after Hamilton had hit his tee shot on the 235-yard par-3 into a bunker, barely got out, chipped short and ran his bogey putt 3 feet past.
Still, when Dickerson’s putt fell, the first to rush out onto the green was his father, Bob, who gave his son a big bear hug.
“This is just unbelievable,” said Bob, wiping tears from his eyes. “I was about to have a heart attack out there all day so right now I’m just so happy and so relieved. Words can’t explain what I feel right now.”
But it was Dickerson’s love affair with the 453-yard, par-4 17th all week that was the key. After he won his opening match, 6 and 5, over Steve Paramore of Ashland, Ohio, Dickerson and No. 17 became the best of friends.
In his second match, he won the 17th with a par to go 1 up against Chris Nallen, a sophomore at Arizona from Hackettstown, N.J. In the round of 16, he closed out a 2-and-1 victory on the 17th against his Florida teammate, Camilo Villegas of Colombia. And in the quarterfinals his birdie at 17 gave him a 1-up lead as he defeated Bermuda’s Michael Sims.
Then, in the semifinals Dickerson was 2 down with four to play against Brian Nosler, a senior at Arizona State from Lake Oswego, Ore., but he won three consecutive holes, with the key hole coming on a 40-foot birdie putt on – where else – No. 17. Another 1 up victory.
“Actually, that hole doesn’t set up well for me off the tee, but I just kind of set up a little squarer and just tried to hit it straight rather than use my normal fade,” said Dickerson, who became only the seventh player since World War II and first since Tiger Woods in 1994 to win the Western Amateur and U.S. Amateur in the same year.
The victory not only puts Dickerson’s name on the Havemeyer Trophy, but it earns him invitations to play next year at the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open as long as he remains an amateur.
“Every tournament I’ve played in all my life has been building up to this,” said Dickerson. “I think every amateur golfer’s dream is to have his name on that trophy.”
Florida coach Buddy Alexander, whose name also is inscribed on the prestigious trophy for his 1986 U.S. Amateur victory, flew in from Gainesville to watch the final round.
“This was a classic Bubba day,” said Alexander. “Bubba’s just a warrior. He kept his composure, even when things weren’t going well. I think he showed today that he’s capable of winning with his heart as well as his game. There are always pivotal shots late in close matches and Bubba showed he has what it takes to pull those shots off.”
For Alexander, Dickerson’s victory gives him a personal grand slam in 2001: He adds a U.S. Amateur title by Dickerson to the Gators’ victory at the NCAAs, Nick Gilliam’s NCAA individual title, and a victory by David Toms, who played for Alexander at LSU, at the PGA Championship.
Hamilton, who also gets an invite to the Masters, never went to the 18th hole in any of his first five matches, and he fought to the end in the final.
“It was a great week. It just didn’t quite happen today,” said Hamilton, who graduated from the University of California-Berkeley in 2000 but remained an amateur to work on his game. “I lost 17, but going to 18 I was still happy because I still had a chance to win, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Hamilton had planned to turn professional this fall and go through the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. Those plans changed when he earned his ticket to Augusta. Now he plans to stay amateur until next fall.
“I really would like to come back and play again (in Amateur) next year,” he said. “After coming this close, I want to come back and try to win the title once more before I go on to the pros.”
When the week began, Dickerson, too, had a notion to leave Florida in order to turn professional after the Amateur. His plan also changed.
“I’ll be going back to school and staying amateur at least into next summer,” he said.
Hamilton dominated the early going of the morning 18 holes. He built a 4-up lead through five after winning No. 2 with a bogey, Nos. 3 and 5 with birdies and No. 4 with a par. It stayed that way through 11, but over the last seven holes none were halved.
Dickerson won the 12th with a par, but Hamilton got to 5 up by winning 13 with par and 14 with birdie.
“One of the things that popped into my mind (when he was 5 down) was when I watched Tiger (Woods) play Trip (Kuehne, in 1994) and he was like 5 or 6 down with 17 to play and then was 6 down (actually 5 down) against Steve Scott (1996),” Dickerson said. “He (Woods) came back both times and won the championship. So I knew that it was a long day and my turn to score would come and that it would get pretty close coming down the stretch.”
He was right. Dickerson took control, winning the last four holes of the morning – two with birdies and two with pars – to find himself just 1 down with 18 holes remaining.
From that point, neither player held more than a 1-up lead the rest of the way to set the stage for Dickerson’s decisive wins at the 17th and 18th.
Hamilton advanced to the final by defeating Greg Svoboda of Stamford, Conn., 3 and 2, and followed with another 3-and-2 decision over Greg Earnhardt of Greensboro, N.C. He then rolled past Daniel Ozley of Birmingham, Ala., 4 and 3, in the round of 16 and by that same score defeated 17-year-old high school senior Daniel Summerhays of Farmington, Utah, in the quarterfinals.
In the semifinals, Hamilton won Nos. 12, 13, 14 and 15 to build a 3-up lead and hung on for a 2-and-1 decision over BYU senior Manuel Merizalde of Colombia.
Dickerson’s 1-up victory in the semifinals over Nosler grew tense after an incident at No. 11 where Dickerson walked off the green and forgot to concede Nosler’s 1-foot bogey putt to halve the hole. He had to be called back by a USGA official and then conceded the putt. But after that, both players were making the other putt everything out, including a 3-inch putt Dickerson had on the next hole. Still, Nosler was 2 up with four holes to play, before Dickerson won 15 with a par, chipped in for birdie at 16, and rolled in his 40-footer for birdie at 17 for a 1-up lead. He had to make a 6-footer for par at 18 to secure the victory.
Earlier in the week, defending champion Jeff Quinney, who completed his eligibility at Arizona State last spring and is making his pro debut at the PGA Tour’s Air Canada Championship this week, was eliminated in the quarterfinals, 1 up, by Nosler, his Sun Devil teammate.
“It was a fun year and it’s going to be something I’m going to remember the rest of my life,” Quinney said. “I learned a lot and hopefully I can go on to be a successful professional golfer. I tried to do my best (for the week), but it just didn’t end up like I wanted it to. But that’s match play.”
Dickerson’s week ended exactly the way he wanted, as he made all the shots and the putts he needed to win.
None more stunning or crucial than the ones he made at No. 17.