Luke List rises as top-notch amateur

When he qualified as an 18-year-old to play in the U.S. Open last year at Olympia Fields, Luke List was a footnote. Fourteen months later, his near-miss at the U.S. Amateur has elevated him to golf’s “A” List.

Equally impressive as holding off the relentless Ryan Moore for 34 holes in the final at Winged Foot was the way List mowed through his talent-laden half of the lower match-play bracket.

List’s first victim (4 and 2) was Sihwan Kim, the U.S. Junior champion. Next was Trip Kuehne (2 and 1), a two-time Walker Cup player and runner-up to Tiger Woods at the 1994 U.S. Amateur. Then it was John Holmes (2 and 1), a first-team All-American as a junior at Kentucky last season and medalist at the 2003 U.S. Amateur.

In the quarterfinals, List eliminated Danny Green (3 and 2), whose credentials include 1999 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, 2001 Walker Cup, 1989 U.S. Amateur runner-up and 2001 U.S. Public Links runner-up. In his semifinal against Chris Nallen, a Walker Cup player and two-time All-American at Arizona, List had to endure a 3-hour, 22-minute rain delay (he led 2 up through 15 holes) and a furious comeback by Nallen before staking his 163-yard approach shot for a kick-in, winning birdie on the 19th hole.

List played 121 holes, and only three times – for a total of five holes – did he trail in a match. He went 1 down on the eighth hole against Kim, but squared it at the 10th. He was 1 down to Kuehne after the second hole, but won the third. He led the final until the 35th hole, which he lost to Moore’s birdie that ended List’s streak of consecutive holes either square or ahead at 100.

The quality of List’s game was matched only by his poise, both on and off the course.

“He’s gained tremendous maturity just in the last 12 months,” said his father, Mark List, a homebuilder in Ringgold, Ga., who caddied for Luke at Winged Foot. “From the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields until today, he has grown up tremendously.”

Going off to college at Vanderbilt had a lot to do with it, Mark List said. As for his son’s golf, he said: “The turning point was at the NCAAs (where Luke shot 12 over par for 54 holes). He came away saying, ‘I want to be ready next year – conditioned and ready, mentally and physically – for this kind of championship against these competitors.’”

List graduated from the Baylor School, a prep school in Chattanooga with a storied history in golf. He’s held in such high regard there that some Baylor alumni and the golf coaching staff hastily made arrangements for both the boys and girls teams to fly to New York on Sunday morning via private jets, arriving in time to watch the final.

Lounging outside the Winged Foot clubhouse between 18s were Baylor teammates Jennifer Cassidy, Catherine Hicks, Leah Haggadorn and Sara Grantham. They were joking about “blackmail” pictures of List that were taken during his freshman and sophomore years.

“He was just a boy back then,” said Hicks. “He still had his baby fat.”

Not anymore. At 6-foot-2, List is lean, if not mean.

“His fitness regimen has been exceptional,” said King Oehmig, the Episcopal priest who coordinates Baylor’s golf program. “And I think getting with (Atlanta-based instructor) Danny Elkins has helped, too.”

List comes from an athletic family. Both parents were nationally ranked swimmers at the University of North Carolina; his mother, Bonny, competed in the Pan American Games.

From his perspective as an athlete, Mark List noted that his son, after the heady experience of qualifying for the U.S. Open as a teen-ager, had been humbled this summer by so-so performances in the Sunnehanna Amateur (T-54), Northeast Amateur (T-53), U.S. Amateur Public Links (first-round loss) and Porter Cup (T-19).

List scratched from the Western Amateur to focus on his U.S. Amateur qualifier at Reynolds Plantation in Georgia, where he carried his own bag and finished third. During the medal rounds at Winged Foot, List shot 70-73 to earn the sixth seed, which fell into a brutal bracket that included Kuehne, Green, Nallen, Holmes, Kim, Spencer Levin, Lee Williams and Tom Glissmeyer.

Green ran out of gas against List, but his week was noteworthy. He qualified for next year’s U.S. Amateur at Merion, thanks to reaching the quarterfinals. Enjoy Danny Green while you can, for we’ll never see the likes of him again.

By today’s standards, even Moore’s action – open stance, hands low, outside-in plane – is considered quirky. Green’s self-taught swing is downright bizarre. He squats over the ball, grips his clubs (bent 5 degrees flat) with his right palm facing up, hands extended well away from his trademark paunch. His inside-out arc propels his tee shots 50 to 70 yards shorter than his college-age opponents, most of whom display textbook technique.

But Green continues to take the kids to school. Consider how he disposed of Levin, who arrived at Winged Foot as one of the favorites.

Green built a 3-up lead through 13 holes and managed to win despite three bogeys coming home. Leading 1-up after Levin birdied No. 15, Green drove into the left rough, was still short of the putting surface after four shots, but rolled in a 25-footer from off the green for bogey. Levin, meanwhile, had hit a perfect drive but blew his chance to square the match when he mis-hit his approach and failed to get up-and-down.

That was all Green needed. They halved the 17th with bogeys, then a subtle move at the 18th helped him send Levin packing.

Levin, 27 years Green’s junior, hit what looked like a perfect 5-iron for his 187-yard approach to the 18th. But the ball didn’t check and instead squirted through the green and into the rough.

Levin dropped his club and turned away in disbelief. Green, whose tee ball was uncharacteristically about 6 yards ahead of Levin’s, walked back to where his opponent’s club was lying to confirm what Levin had hit.

“I was between 5 and 6 anyway, and when he was about half a club behind me and he hit 5 over the green, it made up my mind,” Green said.

Using the 6-iron, Green hit his second shot to 18 feet. Levin couldn’t stop his downhill touch shot from rolling well past the pin and made 5, leaving Green to two-putt for the win and a return trip to Merion, where in his U.S. Amateur debut he was runner-up to Chris Patton in 1989.

“It’s obviously one of my favorites,” Green said. “I think a mid-am can compete with the young guys there.”

Who knows, perhaps there’s a Green-List rematch in the Amateur’s future. And given the fact that Moore is exempt into the 2005 Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, and would be a shoo-in for the Walker Cup (contested next year a week before the Amateur), Moore might elect to defend his title.

It would be a tough act to follow, but well worth the price of admission. Especially if List and Green are in the mix.

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