Shelton highlights final four at U.S. Junior

(clockwise from top left) Denny McCarthy, Jim Liu, Justin Thomas and Robby Shelton

(clockwise from top left) Denny McCarthy, Jim Liu, Justin Thomas and Robby Shelton

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ADA, Mich. – Baby-faced Robby Shelton stripes it down the fairway, knocks it close with each of his irons (and that trusty 3-wood), and seemingly drains every putt he reads – all in one effortless sequence.

Sort of like Anthony Paolucci in 2007.

Three years later, the roles were reversed.

No longer anonymous, Shelton took down another top player Friday, beating Paolucci, 2 and 1, to advance to the semifinals of the U.S. Junior Amateur.

Shelton was thrust into the spotlight Thursday after winning the last two holes to beat defending champion Jordan Spieth and stun the assembled gallery at Egypt Valley Country Club.

This time, he beat arguably the hottest player in junior golf.

“I don’t know how many fairways he missed today,” Paolucci said, “but it wasn’t many. If you’re that consistent, this is the perfect golf course. He made the putts when he had to, and that’s exactly what I did in ’07. 

“He’s fearless, and he’s got nothing to lose. You just felt like he was going to find a way to win. It was a weird feeling.”

Three years ago, as a 14-year-old a few months shy of beginning high school, Paolucci made a surprising run to the finals of the Junior Amateur, knocking off current college standouts Peter Uihlein and Bud Cauley. Now, Shelton is playing with a similar indifference to whom he’s facing, and will square off against fellow 14-year-old Jim Liu in Friday afternoon’s semifinal match.

“My game has been good all summer,” said Shelton, his voice still trembling with nerves, “but not quite this good. I’m knocking off the top-ranked players in the world, and it’s just amazing how good I am right now.”

Paolucci wasn’t the only top player to lose Friday morning. Gavin Hall, who shot a tournament-record 62 during stroke-play qualifying, lost to Liu, 1 up. Liu made a 40-footer to halve the hole on No. 9, then two-putted for birdie on the par-5 17th to take the lead. After leaving his approach short on the closing hole, Liu chipped to within 3 feet to save par, while Hall’s lengthy birdie bid slid by the cup.

“It just wasn’t meant to be today,” Hall said. “That’s what you’re going to get in match play. You’re not going to play your best golf every day, and I gave Jim my best shot and it wasn’t good enough.”

Paolucci felt just as helpless. Despite bombing his tee shots well past Shelton – on the par-5 13th, he was at least 125 yards ahead – Paolucci could never mount a sustained charge against the kid from Wilmer, Ala., with the peach-fuzz mustache and mouth full of braces.

A few good breaks certainly didn’t hurt Shelton. Staked to a 1-up lead on the par-4 10th, he pushed his drive way right, surely headed out of bounds, but the ball ricocheted off the trees and bounced back into the middle of the fairway. From 225 yards away, Shelton hit 3-wood into the front bank, and the ball skipped onto the green, a foot from the cup. Two up.

“I was waiting for a short-side miss, for some kind of miss, but he played solid all day,” said Paolucci, winner of two AJGA invitationals this season. “He definitely deserves to be in the semifinals with the way he’s playing.

“In ’07, people were saying they didn’t know if I deserved to be there, but I was just striping it. I had so much confidence, and for one week, if you can get that confidence, you can play anyone out here. It wasn’t a fluke that he got this far. He’s obviously doing something right.”

So are Justin Thomas and Denny McCarthy, Golfweek’s No. 1-ranked junior. Thomas escaped with a 2-and-1 win over Scott Wolfes, and McCarthy needed 19 holes to defeat Richard Jung of Canada.

“I knew I had to be up a couple going to the last few holes, but we gave each other some gifts,” Thomas said. “A win is a win, though, and I need to go straighten a few things out before I head back out on the course.”

Thomas closed out his match on the par-5 17th, after Wolfes put his second shot in the greenside bunker and Thomas followed by hitting his mid-iron into the thick rough long and left of the green. Wolfes then bladed his bunker shot, sending the ball over the green onto a steep mound, and couldn’t get up-and-down to save par, losing the hole and the match.

“I’m getting closer, inching closer match by match, and hopefully I can get it done,” Thomas said.

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