2006: Twists & Turns - Richie Ramsay U.S. Amateur title

On paper, Richie Ramsay’s road to the U.S. Amateur Championship looked uneventful.

He was exempt into the championship, thanks to being a member of the 2005 Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup team. He qualified for match play easily enough, rounds of 75 at Hazeltine National and 69 at the Chaska Town Course giving him a three-stroke cushion above the cut line. In 121 holes against six match-play opponents, Ramsay trailed only three times, and never after the seventh hole.

The Scot’s 4-and-2 victory Aug. 27 over John Kelly in the 36-hole final at Hazeltine was textbook. Ramsay hit 30 of 34 greens in regulation. After losing the seventh hole, where he missed a 12-foot birdie attempt, then conceded Kelly’s 6-foot eagle putt, Ramsay won three consecutive holes and never looked back.

The journey, however, had its share of bizarre twists, beginning Aug. 10. That was the day Ramsay and four Walker Cup teammates departed Great Britain for the United States, where they were slated for a U.S. Amateur tune-up at the Scratch Players Championship that week in Byron, Minn.

It also was the day British anti-terror units arrested 24 people suspected of plotting to bomb U.S.-bound planes, triggering high security alerts and throwing Heathrow and Gatwick airports into chaos.

Lloyd Saltman, Oliver Fisher, Rhys Davies, Robert Dinwiddie and Ramsay were in the thick of it. Waiting to pass through Gatwick security, “We moved about 6 yards in an hour,” Saltman said.

He and Ramsay first had taken a domestic flight from Edinburgh and were unaware of the news until they landed in London. Saltman acknowledged experiencing high anxiety during the wait in the terminal. News was just starting to appear on TV monitors and “they hadn’t caught everyone yet,” Saltman said.

“It was mental, absolutely mental,” he said, using UK slang that roughly translates into “crazy.”

Ramsay, however, said he “wasn’t too bothered” by the circumstances.

“If you’re going to fly on any day, that was probably the safest,” he said. “Because you couldn’t take anything on the plane. It was just the waiting around, that was tough to take.”

Ramsay was more concerned about having to check his laptop and iPod.

“When you’ve got £2,000 worth of gear that you’ve got to put in the hold, you’re not going to be that happy about it,” he said. “It worked out OK, but you’re never that confident you’re going to receive your goods back. I’ve had issues with golf clubs before where they haven’t turned up, or when they do turn up, you open (the travel bag) and the driver is in the place where the wedge should be, the wedge is in the 7-iron place, and you’re like, someone has been raking through this thing. Then you open up the bag and all the Oakleys and the waterproofs are gone.”

After the GB&I contingent finally boarded, the players’ Minneapolis-bound aircraft sat on the tarmac for nearly three hours .

“Because we weren’t sure if we were getting permission from the U.S. government to fly from London,” Ramsay said. “And I’m really happy that they gave permission, because I wouldn’t be sitting here (as the champion) otherwise probably.”

Running afoul of another ruling body almost thwarted Ramsay as well. Twice.

In the quarterfinals, Ramsay’s caddie, longtime Hazeltine member Thomas Buller, touched the intended line of his man’s putt at No. 17. That’s a breach of Rule 16-1, meaning automatic loss of hole. Ramsay had led 1-up over Ricky Fowler and was surveying a birdie attempt. Instead of possibly closing out the match, he found himself all square. The Scot finally prevailed in 21 holes.

In the semifinals, Ramsay violated Rule 13-4 when he grounded his club while addressing his ball in a hazard at No. 16. Ramsay claims he didn’t ground the club, and if he did, it was inadvertent. NBC commentators, including USGA executive director David Fay, spotted the gaffe immediately. And two of the USGA’s top rules officials, Lew Blakey and Walter Driver, were standing right beside Ramsay. Driver said it was no contest.

The episode would have unnerved most golfers, but the kid they call “Rambo” never flinched.

“I managed to come through,” he said. “I was still 1-up (over Webb Simpson) with two to play, and I’d made a good birdie on 15.”

Ramsay said he had no choice but to shake off the incident.

“There’s everything to play for and he’s still got to come in and make some putts,” Ramsay said. “He’s got to beat me over the last two holes. I know what I can do. I know the shots that I’ve got in the bag.”

Ramsay possesses a matter-of-fact confidence.

“I’m straight off the tee,” he said. “I don’t miss fairways. If you’re looking for someone to hit fairways and greens, I’m your man.

“I was not in people’s faces, but with my shots I was in people’s faces, by hitting it on the green, putting it close, hitting the fairways, chipping out of bunkers close.

“I think I applied a lot of pressure to my opponents, and that talked.”

There was little talk of Ramsay or Kelly before the weekend. The early headlines belonged to Billy Horschel and the weather.

Horschel, a University of Florida sophomore, shot a U.S. Golf Association record 60 in Round 1 of stroke-play qualifying at the Chaska Town Course. He carded 78 the next day at Hazeltine, but was still medalist by three shots. Horschel was bounced in the third round by Ryan Yip, a Canadian who will graduate from Kent State in December.

“He kept chipping them in on me, from anywhere and everywhere,” Horschel said. “I played better than him. I’m not afraid to say that. . . . But sometimes it’s just a matter of luck, and luck wasn’t on my side today.”

Yip, who defeated Horschel, 1 up, is a short-game magician. His touch around the greens also helped him take down GB&I Walker Cup player Oliver Fisher, 17, who plans on giving European Tour Q-School a whirl this fall. Yip drummed the precocious Englishman, 4 and 3, in the quarterfinals.

Severe weather disrupted the proceedings Thursday, when both the second and third rounds of match play were to have been played. A morning thunderstorm caused a 4-hour, 24-minute delay, pushing Round 3 into Friday.

It could have been worse. A swath of Minnesota about 50 miles south of Hazeltine was pummeled Thursday evening by grapefruit-size hail and a deadly tornado.

Kelly raised eyebrows on a soggy Friday morning by eliminating Jon McLean in Round 3. McLean, the 20-year-old son of noted instructor Jim McLean, had scored impressive victories over Jon Sauer and Dustin Johnson, and appeared headed for a semifinal showdown with Trip Kuehne.

Instead, that fell to Kelly, who had only vague knowledge of Kuehne’s reputation.

“I know he lost to Tiger Woods back when I was a little child,” Kelly said. “I remember watching that (1994 U.S. Amateur final). Isn’t he the one?”

Kuehne, 33, makes no bones about his desire to someday win the title that got away and to play in the Walker Cup for a third time, perhaps more. He was sharp in ousting Chris Rogers, U.S. Public Links champion Casey Watabu and Matthew Swan in succession. But he ran out of steam Friday afternoon and gift-wrapped the quarterfinal for Kelly, putting a bow on it – and stunning onlookers into empathetic silence – by shanking his second shot at No. 16 into Hazeltine Lake. Kelly won, 3 and 2.

“Yeah, I got my 15 minutes of fame,” Kelly said. Yet there was more to come.

It wasn’t until Kelly scored a 2-and-1 semifinal victory over Yip, a quarterfinalist last year at Merion, that people began to take the University of Missouri senior seriously – the exception being four of his Tiger teammates who were in the gallery. They had piled into a SUV after watching Kelly’s quarterfinal victory on TV and driven nine hours to Hazeltine.

“He was real solid and never made really any mistakes,” said Yip, who had lost in the semifinals of the Canadian Amateur a week earlier.

“I was up in both matches at one time,” Yip said. “I felt like I was in control and I just couldn’t pull it through, so it’s kind of frustrating, two weeks in a row.”

The other half of the bracket featured the exploits of 17-year-old Fowler, who announced his intention to enroll at Oklahoma State in 2007, then scored 5-and-4 routs of Jeff Bell and Andrew DiBitetto that set up a shoot-out with current Cowboy Pablo Martin, college golf’s No. 1 player. Fowler ousted Martin, 1 up.

Next up for Fowler was Ramsay, who was on a tear of his own. The Scot had won his first hole in Round 1 against Mark Leon and never trailed en route to a 5-and-3 victory. Finland’s Antti Ahokas won the fifth and sixth holes to go 1 up on Ramsay in Round 2, but Ramsay won the next four holes and forged a 3-up lead after 10. He won, 2 and 1.

Ramsay’s next victim was Kyle Davis, who was 1 up after five holes before Ramsay won three holes in a row beginning at No. 7. Davis fell, 3 and 2.

Fowler took Ramsay 21 holes, but the teenager never led. The rules episode at No. 17 only prolonged the inevitable.

Ramsay’s semifinal opponent, Simpson, was a favorite coming into the championship on the strength of his victory at the Sunnehanna Amateur and runner-up finish at the Northeast Amateur. Ramsay won the first hole with birdie and never trailed, winning 1 up. Again, a penalty proved to be irrelevant.

The final was a contrast in styles, American long ball vs. Scottish precision.

“Back home we play a different game of golf,” said Ramsay, who belongs to Royal Aberdeen. “You don’t just bomb it off the tee. You’ve got to be strategic. This course lends itself to that, and the way I play. You don’t always have to hit driver off the tees here. It helps sometimes, but if you hit driver it’s a risky play. . . . I never got sucked into hitting driver when I didn’t need to.”

A bogey-bogey finish in his opening qualifying round at Hazeltine had been a wake-up call for Ramsay.

“It’s not an easy course,” he said. “It bit back, and I think that just gave me a slight warning of what can happen. Those things keep you sharp. They keep you really determined to go out there and focus until the last hole.

“Until it’s over, you don’t relent. And that’s what I did this week.” m

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