BREMERTON, Wash. – The finish was stunning in its swiftness. It took all of 10 minutes. Ten minutes for 16-year-old Chelso Barrett to make birdie and for his opponent to push his tee shot and for the enduring image of the championship to play out before an amazed gallery, with the defending U.S. Junior champ, standing in waist-high fescue, hand on his hip, trying to plot an improbable escape.
“Chelso just beat me,” Jim Liu said, shrugging.
Another year will pass without a repeat U.S. Junior Amateur winner. Tiger Woods’ life may be in constant turmoil, but at least his junior record remains intact. When Liu won last year at Egypt Valley, becoming at age 14 the youngest winner in tournament history, it was his first large-scale, national triumph. Twelve months later, it still represents his lone significant title. “I’m disappointed,” Liu said after his 2-up loss, “but it’s golf. You’re going to lose matches.”
On Thursday, Liu held the outright lead only once, on the third hole. He chased and scrapped and pressed the entire match. Not unlike the rest of his week, really, for Liu was out of sorts from the start. During Monday’s first round of stroke-play qualifying, he took a quadruple-bogey 8 and triple-bogey 7 on his way to a 78. His spot in the match-play bracket wasn’t secure until midday Tuesday, after a round of 70.
In Barrett, Liu faced an opponent ranked No. 369 in the country, who plays in the unfriendly clime of Keene, N.H., and whose prior U.S. Junior experience included being pummeled by Jordan Spieth, 7 and 5, in the 2010 championship. Clearly, he’s learned from that.
“I thought I had it in me,” said Barrett, now surrounded by reporters for the first time in his career.
Barrett squandered a 1-up lead on the par-3 16th when he needed two shots to get out of a greenside bunker. Immediately he redeemed himself, stuffing his 7-iron approach from 165 yards inside 6 feet on 17. The ensuing birdie led to an interesting scenario on 18 tee.
The par-4 18th hole at Gold Mountain is 304 yards, slightly downhill, with a pond on the right and cross bunkers some 20 yards before the putting surface. Plenty of room left, but over the green is dead; players face a difficult chip down the hill. Some players lay up with an iron. The longer hitters use 3-wood or driver and try to reach the green.
On Wednesday, in his opening-round match against Andrew Bonner, Barrett headed to the 18th tee all square. He pulled out his driver and waited for his turn to hit. Must be going for it, his opponent thought, so he grabbed driver, too. Then he found the junk surrounding the green and made bogey to lose the match.
“I got my opponent to hit driver,” Barrett said, smiling. “I wasn’t going to hit it. I was thinking 3-iron the whole way.”
Barrett didn’t try the same tactic against Liu. He never needed to. Barrett striped his 3-iron down the left-hand side, far away from all the trouble, and Liu debated hitting 3-wood or driver. Driver was too much club, he said; no one wanted that downhill pitch. So, instead, Liu uncorked a violent swing with his 3-wood, popping the white Titleist cap off his head in the process, and watched as his ball initially cleared the hazard but bounded back into the tall grass short and right of the green. “Nothing you can do about that,” Liu sighed.
After a brief delay, Liu chopped out to the left rough, his ensuing chip raced passed the hole, and it was over. It took all of 10 minutes. Barrett’s Round of 16 match against Will Zalatoris would begin in an hour.
“Even if I don’t win my match later today or go on any further,” Barrett said, “I just beat one of the best players in the world of junior golf.”