RUMFORD, R.I. – It was played out in vintage seaside summer weather, tucked cozily into a corner of New England, but much of what Stewart Jolly scripted Saturday at Wannamoisett Country Club was rooted in the Deep South. Birmingham, Ala., to be exact.
That is where Jolly grew up, where he fell in love with golf, where he honed some impressive skills.
But it’s where he had all he could do just to be better than his buddies.
“My best friend was Tom (Lovelady, a University of Alabama standout). We went to the same high school (Mountain Brook), but he was always better than me,” Jolly said. “But it made me work all that much harder.”
Smylie Kaufman (LSU) and Michael Johnson (Auburn) were two other junior golfers from Birmingham, and this foursome of talented players constantly showed up at the same tournaments, constantly ran up against one another and pushed themselves to be better.
It hasn’t happened as much as he would like – that’s the way it is with this great game – but it was the story of the day in the final round of the 53rd Northeast Amateur as Jolly showed great mettle down the stretch of this early-summer classic. His four-stroke lead through 10 holes whittled to one, the senior-to-be at LSU dug deep, stuffed a 5-iron to 10 feet and birdied the 196-yard 15th, then backed it up with pars at 16 and 17 to nail down a two-stroke victory over Jordan Niebrugge.
Best of all? His father, Ralph, had traveled up to see the final two rounds.
“He had planned to be here, and it just so happens that I made it a special trip,” Jolly said after closing with a 2-over 71 to finish at 2-under 274. It’s the first time since Dustin Johnson won at 1 under in 2007 that only one player has been in red numbers at tournament’s end.
“It was just very difficult to get it up-and-down from anywhere,” Jolly said, joining a chorus of players who conceded that once again, Wannamoisett had proved to be a formidable challenge.
Niebrugge, who started the day just one off Jolly’s lead, was in that camp, too.
“It was just tough to get anything inside 10 or 15 feet,” Niebrugge said, dismissing the relative shortness of Wannamoisett (6,732 yards) by reminding that it was a par-69 layout with just one par 5, three meaty par 3s and a series of quick, firm greens protected by good rough.
Not that Niebrugge tossed in the white towel, because after turning in 36 to fall four strokes behind Jolly, he lost even more ground at the 10th when the kid from Alabama made birdie. In need of a spark, Niebrugge got it when he birdied the 11th and Jolly made bogey. Then came bogeys at the 13th and 14th holes, too, much to Jolly’s chagrin.
“All three bogeys were pretty sloppy,” he said. “Twice I had lob wedge in my hand in the fairway and made bogey. You can’t do that.”
Ah, but what you can do is call upon all those times when you had to shine just to keep up with your friends. Jolly had done that for so many years, so when he stood on the 15th tee, he knew what was needed. The 5-iron was arguably the shot of the tournament for him.
“Huge, probably the turning point,” he conceded.
The birdie settled his nerves, put him up by two, then he pulled further ahead when Niebrugge made the mistake. His pitching wedge from 127 yards went deep at the 16th, and from behind the green the Oklahoma State junior-to-be made bogey.
Any chance for a comeback fizzled at the 17th in a most heartbreaking manner; Niebrugge’s 6-iron from 210 yards at Wannamoisett’s lone par 5 was brilliant, but it was perhaps too much so. It hit the flagstick, caromed dead left into the fringe but up against the collar, and instead of an eagle putt, Niebrugge had all he could do to make par.
“I can’t be mad or anything like that,” Niebrugge said after shooting 72–276. “It is what it is. That’s the game of golf.”
Four players tied for third at 3-over 279: Lee McCoy (68), Chelso Barrett (69), Scottie Scheffler (69) and Seth Reeves (70).
But it was Jolly’s time to shine, and it was a most pleasing way to set in motion his overseas flight out of Boston Sunday night. He and two other Northeast Amateur competitors, Bryson Dechambeau and Anthony Maccaglia, will travel to the Palmer Cup at Walton Heath Club outside of London. His selection to that team gave Jolly some reason to pause and consider taking a pass on the Northeast.
“It was a hard decision, but it looks pretty good right now,” he said.
A natty blue blazer had been draped upon him and a brilliant piece of championship crystal was in his hands. Even brighter was the smile on his face.