CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. — There was a heavyweight championship bout in the Round of 64 at the U.S. Amateur. This was a pair of Goliaths: Jordan Spieth, the two-time U.S. junior champ, Walker Cupper and low amateur at the 2012 U.S. Open, against Thomas Pieters, the reigning NCAA individual champion from Illinois.
If Howard Cosell had been announcing this match, which seemed better suited for the finals than the first round, he would’ve screamed, “Down goes Spieth! Down goes Spieth!”
“Looks like we’re staying a little longer,” Pieters said to his caddie with a smirk as he walked off the 18th green after ousting Spieth, 1 up.
When he went to bed last night, Pieters, a 20-year-old Belgium native, didn’t even know if he would qualify for match play. He arrived late Sunday night after competing in the European Amateur in Ireland, where he finished 22nd. Pieters didn’t play any practice rounds and shot 143 in the stroke play qualifier. He had to compete in a 17-for-14-man playoff. He made a par at 10 to advance as the 53rd seed in the draw. When asked how he felt when he learned he drew Spieth, the 12-seed, at 11:20 a.m. local time, Pieters said, “I was happy. I know he’s a really good player. I knew it was going to be a really good match.”
So did Spieth. He called facing Pieters a tough early draw.
“He should’ve been a top-seed,” Spieth said. “I knew what he was capable of. I knew I had to shoot 3-4-5 under. I knew I had to bring my ‘A-game.’ “
The fireworks began early when Pieters attempted to drive the first green and holed a flop shot from the left rough for eagle to go 1 up. The lead didn’t last long. On the very next hole, he lipped out a 5-foot par putt to square the match. But that would be Pieters last bogey of the day.
The beauty of match play was evident at the par-5 5th hole. Both players boomed drives and attacked the green with mid-irons. Pieters attempted a 50-foot uphill eagle putt that came up short. Spieth’s approach had bounded over the green and he faced a delicate chip from heavy rough to a back-right hole location. He lofted his ball and landed it short of the green, but it caught the slope and didn’t stop until he faced the same 50-footer Pieters had just missed. Spieth, however, canned it for birdie, and they halved the hole.
The tightly contested match remained all square until Spieth blinked at the 274-yard 8th hole, where both players missed the green. Spieth duffed his chip and made bogey while Pieters caught a good lie on the upslope of the left bunker and scooped it to 2 feet to go 1 up.
On nine, Pieters stretched his lead to 2 up when his 25-foot birdie putt broke right to left and crawled in the side door at the last instant.
Spieth had his chances at birdie, dropping to his knees in disappointment when his 20-foot putt missed at 12. They matched birdies at the par-4 13th hole. Pieters’s approach from 159 yards pitched 10 feet past the hole, caught the slope, turned gracefully, and tracked toward the cup for a kick-in birdie. But Spieth answered. From 110 yards, he planted a wedge 5 feet from the hole and made the putt.
Spieth finally cut into his deficit at the par-4 14th. He shaped his second shot right to left from 166 yards to 20 feet. Spieth followed his caddies advice and played the break perfectly. For a moment, it had stopped on the lip. When it trickled in, Spieth pumped a fist. What a beautiful thing. The crowd buzzed around them. Spieth said to Pieters, “Now we both have one,” a reference to Pieters’s putt back at the ninth.
Spieth said later he thought if he could play 1 under on the closing stretch, he could catch Pieters, but he couldn’t convert birdie putts on 15 and 16. So Spieth trailed by one when he reached the 17th tee. He said he never considered going for the green at the par 5 in two and teed off with his hybrid. Pieters chose his 3-iron, layed up to 90 yards and his wedge danced to a stop 5 feet right of the hole for birdie. Spieth scooted a 5-iron just short of the water fronting the green. His 20-yard chip spun still 4 feet left of the hole.
Hundreds of spectators surrounded the two competitors. Everyone sank into a deep silence as Pieters charged his putt 4 feet past the hole on the right. An opportunity beckoned for Spieth.
“When he missed it, I was thinking this is it,” Spieth said afterwards. “This is ‘Go time.’ I had all the confidence in the world. But when I got over it I didn’t trust the line and I pushed it a little bit.”
Spieth slapped the head of his putter. But he could still win the hole if Pieters missed his 4-foot comebacker for par. The putt circled the hole and went in.
So Spieth would have to win 18, a 489-yard par 4 that rises to a green protected by bunkers, to extend the match. Pieters torched another low bullet into the right rough. His 4-iron approach from 230 yards rolled through the left side of the green into the first cut. Meanwhile, Spieth drilled his second shot to 35 feet left of the flagstick. Pieters had to chip some 50 feet across the green and came up 6 feet short.
“I was trying to get it passed the flag for an uphill putt,” he said.
The drama was building as Spieth stalked his putt. But he charged it 8 feet past the hole, then missed the comebacker. Spieth conceded, shaking hands with Pieters after he cozied his par putt near the hole.
Spieth didn’t play any amateur golf this summer, taking advantage of opportunities to play in the John Deere Classic and Web.com Tour’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational. He expressed no regrets and said only he wished he could’ve forced Pieters to have to make his par putt on 18.
“We could still be playing,” Spieth said. “Losing leaves a sour taste in my mouth. It’s a tough one to swallow right now. I probably shot 2-or 3-under. Pretty much against any other opponent today, I win. I just ran into the hottest player in the field.”
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ROUND OF 64
- Bobby Wyatt def. Taylor Hancock, 4 and 2
- Matthew Stieger def. Jade Scott, 7 and 5
- Justin Thomas def. Barry Dyche, 3 and 1
- Max Homa def. Corey Conners, 5 and 4
- Devin Miertschin def. Drew Evans, 3 and 2
- Bobby Leopold def. Michael Kim, 20 holes
- Oliver Gross def. Michael Miller, 19 holes
- Devon Purser def. Sebastian Vazquez, 4 and 3
- Adam Schenk def. Oliver Schniederjans, 2 and 1
- Patrick Duncan Jr. def. Nicholas Reach, 1 up
- Ricardo Gouveia def. Eric Frazzetta, 4 and 3
- Michael Weaver def. Zac Blair, 2 and 1
- Patrick Rodgers def. Justin Spray, 3 and 2
- Thomas Pieters def. Jordan Spieth, 1 up
- Albin Choi def. Mackenzie Hughes, 2 and 1
- Steven Fox def. Jeff Osberg, 3 and 2
- Douglas Hanzel def. Andrew Biggadike, 3 and 2
- Zack Munroe def. Michael Schoolcraft, 19 holes
- Todd White def. Jonathan De Los Reyes, 3 and 1
- Edouard Espana def. Curtis Thompson, 1 up
- Justin Shin def. Brad Valois, 1 up
- Chris Williams def. Peter Williamson, 3 and 2
- Adam Stephenson def. Carlos Ortiz, 1 up
- Cheng-Tsung Pan def. Evan Bowser, 4 and 3
- Gavin Green def. Derek Ernst, 3 and 1
- Talor Gooch def. T.J. Mitchell, 5 and 3
- Andrew Presley def. Bryson Dechambeau, 19 holes
- Brandon Hagy def. Denny McCarthy, 19 holes
- Paul Misko def. Kenny Cook, 20 holes
- Patrick Newcomb def. Richard Lamb, 2 and 1
- Michael Hebert def. Todd Sinnott, 6 and 4