U.S. Am semis: Kraft vs. Senior, Cantlay vs. Russell

Patrick Cantlay during the Round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur.

Patrick Cantlay during the Round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur.

Editor's note: Below you will find mini-stories on each of the quarterfinal matches at Erin Hills on Friday.

•••

ERIN, Wis. - Patrick Cantlay was 2 down with two holes to play. It certainly appeared as though he were about to join his other two 2011 Walker Cup teammates in elimination in Friday afternoon’s quarterfinal round of the 111th U.S. Amateur Championship at Erin Hills Golf Club.

Instead, he showed why he is the world’s No. 1-ranked amateur.

Cantlay stormed back, winning the final two holes and then clinched the victory on the 19th hole over unheralded Max Buckley, a senior at SMU.

photo

Patrick Cantlay during the Round of 32 at the U.S. Amateur.

It marked the second time in his past three matches that Cantlay came back to win in extra holes after being 2 down with two to play. He was in that situation on Thursday against Walker Cup teammate Russell Henley. Cantlay birdied the final two holes of regulation and won it on the 21st hole with a par.

His overtime win Friday afternoon certainly helped save some face within the Walker Cup ranks. Earlier in the afternoon, Peter Uihlein, the defending champion, and Patrick Rodgers were sent home.

Jordan Russell, a senior at Texas A&M, defeated Uihlein, 2 and 1, while Kelly Kraft, a recent SMU graduate who was coming off a 23-hole win in the morning round, rolled past Rodgers, 6 and 4.

Cantlay will face Russell in Saturday’s opening semifinal match while Kraft will take on GB&I Walker Cupper Jack Senior, a 1-up winner over two-time U.S. Junior champion Jordan Spieth.

Buckley was trying to become Mad Max the Giant Slayer and almost did just that against Cantlay, Golfweek's Player of the Year last season as a freshman at UCLA.

Cantlay certainly was considered the heavy favorite coming into the match, sporting plenty of impressive credentials in college and amateur play as well as on the PGA Tour, where he finished no worse than 21st in his four starts, including the U.S. Open.

Buckley, on the other hand, hardly has played much competition golf during the past two summers, devoting his time to his summer job at Oppenheimer Funds. His claim to fame - a victory this year at The Hockster, one of the Metropolitan Golf Association’s major tournaments.

But for 16 holes, Buckley never buckled. Only six of their 19 holes were halved as the two punched and counter-punched their way around this 7,729-yard course that will serve as venue for the 2017 U.S. Open.

Cantlay, who lost to eventual champion Uihlein in last year’s semifinals, went on top first, winning Nos. 3 and 4 with pars. Buckley won the fifth with a par; Cantlay the sixth with birdie; and Buckley the seventh (birdie) and ninth (par) to put the match all square at the turn.

Cantlay won the 12th with a par before Buckley made his charge, winning the 13th with a par and 15 and 16 with birdies.

“I knew when I was on the tee box (at 17) it wasn’t over,” Cantlay said. “I was in the same spot a couple of matches before. I knew I just had to dig down deep and make something happen.”

He won 17 with a conceded par after chipping to within a foot and Buckley missing his 10-foot par putt. Cantlay then won the par-5 18th with a birdie.

At the 19th hole, the par-5 first, Cantlay hit two solid shots to just in front of the green. Buckley, meanwhile, hit his third shot into a hazard and hacked his way out in the thick rough, some 25 yards short of the green.

Cantlay putted 2 feet past the hole, and Buckley’s chip rolled some 10 feet beyond the pin.

“He missed, I made and that was that,” Cantaly said matter-of-factly.

“It’s nice to know I can hit good shots coming down to the wire under the pressure,” Cantlay said. “Of course, I’d rather just have a good lead instead.

“So far it’s been a very mentally taxing (match play) tournament, especially my last three matches,” he said. “But, at this stage, it’s taxing on everyone. But hopefully I’ll be able to draw on my experiences (for semifinals) from last year and from this week. It’s nice to know I was there before and know I can play and what it’s like.”

- Ron Balicki

•••

'Underrated' Russell knocks off defending champ Uihlein

ERIN, Wis. – Erin Hills may be a future U.S. Open site, but pars were not Peter Uihlein’s friend Friday afternoon. And when it was all over, Uihlein offered his opponent praise that was confirmed by the result.

“He’s the most underrated player in college golf,” Uihlein said about Jordan Russell, who won their quarterfinal match, 2 and 1. The opponents were familiar foes, with Uihlein playing for Oklahoma State and Russell representing Texas A&M.

photo

Peter Uihlein during the Round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur.

Of course, Russell will get his share of praise after making the U.S. Amateur’s semifinals, and he could get even more should he win Saturday’s match. He’ll face Patrick Cantlay, the world’s top-ranked amateur.

Russell, who’s entering his senior year at Texas A&M, is a former walk-on who’s developed into one of college golf’s best players. He was ranked 18th this past season in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. His father, David, is a chemistry professor at Texas A&M.

“I feel like I am maybe a little underrated, but I mean I kind of like it that way sometimes,” he said. “I haven’t won a whole lot, but I’ve finished in the top 5 a whole lot the last two years, so I guess that probably puts me a little underrated.”

Russell is playing for more than the Havemeyer Trophy. He likely needs to win this week to make the U.S. Walker Cup team. Uihlein was trying to become the first player to successfully defend a U.S. Amateur title since Tiger Woods in 1994-96.

“I just made too many pars,” Uihlein said. “I didn’t hit it close enough to put pressure on him, and then I didn’t make any putts to get going.”

Russell took a 1-up lead with a 6-foot birdie at the 450-yard, par-4 fourth hole. He went 2 up with par at the par-3, sixth hole after Uihlein left his chip shot short of the green. Uihlein made a 30-foot par putt to cut his deficit to 1 down after both players missed the green on the short, par-3 ninth hole. The match was all square after Russell missed a 7-foot par putt on the par-4 12th hole. He birdied the next two holes to take a 2-up lead, though, holing a 25-footer on the 13th and 8-footer on the 14th. Russell could’ve ended the match with a 4-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th, but missed. He missed the 17th green long, but hit his difficult chip to a short-sided pin within inches of the hole. Uihlein missed a 12-foot birdie putt that would’ve extended the match.

“I knew it was going to be tough going,” Russell said.

Then again, so is developing from a college walk-on to an All-American. When you’re underrated, you’re accustomed to doing the unexpected.

- Sean Martin

•••

Relative unknown showing he is a master of his Kraft

ERIN, Wis. – After a draining 23-hole match Friday morning, Kelly Kraft had time for only a pulled-pork sandwich and a few practice putts before returning to the first tee for the quarterfinals. His energy was sapped, his legs weary. No problem: He dispatched his next opponent as quickly as he could.

Buoyed by his morning triumph, Kraft showed no signs of fatigue (until late) and capitalized on a few uncharacteristic short-game mistakes by Patrick Rodgers to win, 6 and 4, and advance to the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur. Kraft will face Jack Senior, a GB&I Walker Cupper, Saturday at Erin Hills.

While he lacks the dazzling resume of Peter Uihlein or Patrick Cantlay, Kraft, 22, has won twice this summer and established himself as one of the most underrated players in the country. (He has exhausted his eligibility at SMU, but the sociology major will return for a fifth year in the fall.) Earlier Friday, John Hahn, a former standout at Kent State, surveyed the leaderboard in front of the clubhouse and marveled: “Look at Kelly Kraft; he has beat everyone for the past six months!” And though that may have been slightly exaggerated, his point was not lost: Kraft, of Denton, Texas, won the Texas State Amateur and the Trans-Miss, then tied for sixth at the Porter Cup. And now this, a trip to the semifinals in only his second U.S. Amateur appearance?

“I’ve been playing good all summer, so I came here to win it,” Kraft said. “I feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”

At Erin Hills, Kraft made the 36-hole stroke-play cut by one; took out Stanford sophomore Cameron Wilson in the Round of 16; rolled past Andrew Putnam, a Walker Cup hopeful, later that afternoon; and on Friday morning, squandered a 1-up lead on the last against UNLV’s Blake Biddle, but prevailed on the fifth extra hole.

Meanwhile, back in the locker room, Rodgers, 19, waited more than two hours to find out his next opponent, which raises the question: Is it easier to rest for a while and prepare, or quickly return to the course with all the momentum and mounting fatigue?

“I was totally loose,” Kraft said. “I tried to make everything as easy as possible.”

After the afternoon break, Rodgers couldn’t sustain any momentum. He three-putted on No. 1 to lose the hole, then fell 3 down after Kraft hit it to 6 feet on No. 2 and sank a 50-foot birdie putt from the rough on No. 5. Rodgers was sloppy with his chip on No. 6 and lost the hole to go 4 down, then Kraft buried a 25-foot birdie putt on No. 9 to head to the back nine with a 5-up lead.

“Hey, the accelerator is on the right,” reminded his caddie, Boston Brittain.

“Yeah, I know,” replied Kraft, and a few moments later he pounded another drive down the middle of the fairway.

As the sun began to set Friday, Brittain sat cross-legged in the grass, his shoes off.

“I’m exhausted,” he said, shaking his head. “It was a fight all day.”

But with his childhood friend now one match from the finals, he couldn’t feel better.

- Ryan Lavner

•••

Senior takes down Junior champion

ERIN HILLS, Wis. - Jack Senior sneaked out a 1-up victory over Jordan Spieth in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills on Friday afternoon, eliminating the U.S. Junior champion.

Through 13 holes, Spieth held a 2-up advantage, only to see Senior - a GB&I Walker Cup team member - win three straight holes to take a 1-up lead.

photo

Jordan Spieth during the Round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur.

"When you're 2 up with five to play, you expect to win," Spieth said. "I can handle defeat if the guy I'm playing beats me, but I lost this one on my own."

Spieth, who will be a Texas freshman, lost the first hole of his 2-up lead when he bogeyed No. 14, a par 5.

"It was inexcusable," Spieth said. "I had a great chance to take control on the par 5, but hit back-to-back dumb shots, and I started being more tentative."

Senior took the lead with a birdie on No. 16, a par 3. Off the tee, Senior thought he had found the rough on the hole, only to hear a positive fan reaction. The ball had kicked off the left rough and settled 3 feet from the cup.

"I thought I was in the rough, for sure," Senior said. "But I heard the 'oohs,' and I really wasn't sure what they were cheering about."

Thinking Senior was in trouble off the tee, Spieth played a safer shot to the green. With the match all square, Spieth aimed right and landed 33 feet from the pin. Spieth earned a conceded par putt from Senior, but the Englishman made his birdie to earn his first lead of the match with two holes to play.

"When I saw his ball off the tee, I thought I was back in it," Spieth said. "I purposely aimed right, thinking that was the better shot, but when I got to the green, I was wrong."

The 1-up lead was short-lived.

On the 509-yard, par-4 17th, Spieth crushed a tee shot down the middle of the fairway and Senior missed right and landed in the rough. After a missed bogey putt by Senior, he conceded the hole to Spieth to bring the match back to all square.

Spieth's momentum was lost immediately, as his tee shot found a fairway bunker on the right, while Senior was 30 yards past him in the fairway. Spieth tired to hit a long iron out of the bunker, but mis-hit and found himself in another fairway bunker on the right. Senior took notice of Spieth's troubles and played a safe shot short and right of the green. After seeing where Spieth hit his second shot, Senior played conservatively and hit an approach shot 20 yards short of the green.

Under pressure, Spieth hit his third shot into yet another bunker, this time greenside. Needing to chip in for par to have any chance at extending the match, Spieth chunked his fourth shot.

"I got him under pressure on the final hole of the match," Senior said. "I think he started to feel it, and I was able to take advantage of it."

Despite missing the green from the rough, Senior grabbed his putter to two-putt from the fringe for victory. His first putt went about a foot past the hole, and Spieth conceded the hole.

After the match, Spieth was still able to look at the positives.

"I'm happy with how I played here and how I gave myself a chance," Spieth said. "I wanted the chance to play in the Masters and U.S. Open, but it just didn't happen for me today."

Senior will face Kelly Kraft in the semifinals, a 6-and-4 winner over U.S. Walker Cupper Patrick Rodgers.

"I'm having a good time representing England and GB& I," Senior said. "I want to keep going so I can make my friends and fellow countrymen proud."

- Asher Wildman

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