JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Say this for Alabama’s Robby Shelton: In Thursday’s Round of 32 at the 114th U.S. Amateur, he went down swinging.
Shelton, the NCAA freshman of the year and a key figure in the Tide’s national-title run in late May, was part of the morning’s top heavyweight matchup, facing off against Houston senior Roman Robledo. And the two players didn’t disappoint.
Robledo turned around an early 2-down deficit, withstood a nice run by Shelton on the back nine and pulled the match out with a clutch par putt (for a halve) at No. 16 and a wedge to 3 feet at the par-3 17th. On the closing par 5 on Atlanta Athletic Club’s Highlands Course, Robledo already had laid up and Shelton, 1 down, decided to go for the green, which is guarded in front by water, from a fairway bunker about 230 yards out. He didn’t quite pull off the shot, catching the ball a little heavy, and as his ball splashed down short, so did his realistic hopes of catching the big, strong Robledo.
Robledo wedged on to 20 feet and two putts later, was a 1-up victor.
“I had the same shot this week (from a fairway bunker) two other times this week, on No. 2,” Shelton said, “and I hit it great both times, hitting it to 8 feet. That was the shot that I was picturing in my head. This time, I just didn’t have as good a lie in the bunker. But I was thinking I had to go for the shot, make birdie and keep the pressure on.”
Robledo, who overcame a 3-down deficit through No. 3 against Mookie DeMoss on Wednesday, stood 2 down on the third tee against Shelton, and still was 2 down heading down the par-4 ninth, where he’d hit his tee shot into a left fairway bunker. But Shelton made an unforced error there, hitting his approach long and into a bunker, and when Shelton bogeyed the next and Robledo managed to rip a 9-iron to 12 feet off pine straw in the right trees, the two were all square.
Shelton power-lipped a 4-foot birdie putt at 12 to trail for the first time all day, but hung in there with a huge 20-foot par save at the 13th and a slick, downhill 12-footer to match Robledo’s birdie at the 14th.
When Shelton made par at the monstrous par-3 15th, measuring in at 267 yards, he squared the match, and he appeared ready to regain a lead at the uphill par-4 16th, where Robledo clipped trees left both on his tee shot and approach. But after escaping a short-side bunker, Robledo would knock down a clutch 10-foot, right-to-left par save, and he then stole momentum once more when his wedge at the 144-yard 17th danced around the hole and stopped 3 feet away.
“I didn’t start very well, and he made a bunch of putts,” said Robledo, 21, who is known to his college teammates as Big Rome. “At 16, I just trusted my line; today was all about ‘feel,’ the feel I had with my putts. Robby is a great player, a phenomenal player, and I’m real happy with the outcome.”
Robledo was off to face SMU’s Bryson Dechambeau, who plays in his same college conference, in Thursday’s Round of 16.
Shelton, who doesn’t turn 19 until later this month, is No. 2 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and is coming off a banner year at Alabama. He captured two individual titles, an NCAA team title and took home the Phil Mickelson Award as the nation’s top freshman. One doesn’t have to go too far down the WAGR rankings to find Robledo, though. He was a second-team All-American and a force who won four tournaments at Houston and ranks 43rd. Alabama’s 11-tournament winning streak? It was ended by Houston, and Robledo, in Mexico.
“I played with him (Robledo) in Mexico this year (at the Querencia Cabo Classic,),” Shelton said. “He won the tournament and I finished third. I wanted to get my revenge, but I didn’t. … I hit a lot of good putts to get it back to all square, but I just couldn’t end it.”
Nonetheless, it was one more great experience for Shelton to build upon as he readies for his sophomore campaign. He didn’t have the greatest summer, but he did make it to the U.S. Open and played well at AAC this week.
“I was a little tired (to start the summer), but going into this college season I know I can do it, and I’ll be ready to win some college tournaments,” he said. “Playing in a match like today is the most fun thing in the world. That’s what you live for. It was a blast, even though I lost.”