CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. – The Golden Bear – as in, golfing great Jack Nicklaus – wasn’t in the gallery at the U.S. Amateur on Saturday. He and wife Barbara were at Cherry Hills on Tuesday watching son Gary, 43, during the second round of stroke-play qualifying, but the younger Nicklaus didn’t advance to match play.
A handful of other Golden Bears did, however. Four of the five players in the field from the University of California found spots on the bracket, including a pair (Brandon Hagy and Michael Weaver) who were among the semifinalists. Only Weaver remains, and he’ll spend his Sunday trying to join the Golden Bear as a U.S. Amateur champion.
Weaver made his way into Sunday’s 36-hole final when he built a 5-up lead after 10 holes and went on to beat Justin Thomas, a sophomore at Alabama and first-team All-American, 3 and 2.
Weaver, a junior at Cal, will take on Steven Fox, a senior at Tennessee at Chattanooga. Fox edged Cal junior Hagy, 2 up, in the other semifinal match.
It could turn into a showdown on the greens as both players are considered to be outstanding putters. Still, considering some of the highly ranked amateurs in the starting field when the week began, some might consider a Weaver-Fox match as an odd-couple final.
Coming into the week, Weaver was ranked No. 149 in the R&A World Amateur Golf Ranking while Fox was No. 127.
No player from Chattanooga has ever made it this far in the U.S. Amateur. As for Cal, graduate Robert Hamilton was runner-up to Bubba Dickerson in 2001. Byeong-Hun An won the title in 2009 as an incoming Cal freshman, beating Ben Martin, 7 and 5. Weaver becomes the first Golden Bear player currently in school to make the final.
Fox certainly had the biggest win of the tournament in the Round of 16 when he ousted world No. 1 Chris Williams, 4 and 2. Before that match, Fox hadn’t met a player ranked better than No. 2,367. That was Doug Hanzel, a 55-year-old lung specialist from Savannah, Ga.
While Weaver was an honorable-mention All-American as a sophomore, he redshirted last season and didn’t play. He has had some success this summer, but not in any of the so-called premier amateur events.
Weaver tied for eighth at the 2011 NCAA and this year was runner-up at the Northern California Amateur. He also qualified for the Web.com Tour’s TPC Stonebrae Championship.
Consider Fox this week’s Cinderella story, even though he has shown this week – on amateur golf’s biggest stage – that he has plenty of game.
Fox is a two-time All-Southern Conference selection and last season had three top 5s and a top 10. He tied for fourth at the Southern Conference Championship and tied for third at the NCAA Regional in Bowling Green, Ky. Earlier this summer, he advanced to the Round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur Public Links.
Last year, Fox won the Tennessee Match Play Championship and in 2010 was a semifinalist in that event. In 2009 he finished third at the Tennessee State Open.
“I think it will be a good match,” Hagy said. “Michael is a real high ball hitter, a very good ball striker and putts well. Steven is a great putter and is doing the right things off the tee, keeping the ball in front of him all the time. It should be good, but of course you know who I’ll be pulling for.”
Weaver said his putting has been only so-so this summer, but it has started to come around this week.
“I’ve really hit it good all week and putted well, but the putts just weren’t going in earlier in the week,” he said. “Fortunately they started to fall yesterday and definitely today.”
Steve Desimone, entering his 34th year at the helm of Cal men’s golf, describes Weaver as “streaky” and praises him as “a tremendous ball striker who can really roll the rock.”
Desimone said the difference in Weaver now from two years ago before his redshirt season is course management and an improved short game.
In Fox, Weaver faces a player who is not especially long off the tee, but around the greens could be Public Enemy No. 1 to his opponent.
“My strongest point is my short game,” Fox said. “I really feel putting and chipping are what carries me.”
The two finalists do have a few things in common stemming from the events of the week.
Both made it to match play by surviving a 17-man playoff for the final 14 spots in the 64-player match-play field. Weaver got in on the third playoff hole with a birdie and gained the No. 60 seed. One hole later, with four players going after the last three positions, Fox rolled in a 10-foot par putt to secure No. 63 in the field.
“The thing about match play is whatever seed you are, you have a chance,” Fox said. “Whether it’s No. 1 or No. 64, you have a chance. And to have two guys who had to go through a playoff go on to reach the finals, it’s pretty unreal.”
Also, the final will be a bit of a family affair as both players have their fathers on the bag. Now, as finalists, they have something else in common. And this may be the best of it all: Weaver and Fox have earned invitations into next year’s Masters and U.S. Open.
Not bad for two guys who, at the start of the week, were well below anyone’s radar.
Make match play? Possibly.
Win a match or two? Maybe.
Meet each other in the finals? Only in your dreams.
Welcome to the U.S. Amateur Championship, where nothing is impossible and dreams really can come true.
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Michael Weaver def. Justin Thomas, 3 and 2
Steven Fox def. Brandon Hagy, 2 up