Can defending Jr. champ Liu be under the radar?

Jim Liu during the first round of the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur

Jim Liu during the first round of the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur

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BREMERTON, Wash. – Wasn’t this supposed to be the predictable part? Thirty-six holes of stroke-play qualifying, 156 players, 64 advance. The best players – Jordan Spieth, Beau Hossler, Grayson Murray, etc. – hardly flinch. So, surely, the defending U.S. Junior Amateur champion can survive that . . .

And then Jim Liu shot 78 in the opening round, dropping into a tie for 72nd, 10 shots back, and needing a good number Tuesday just to extend his stay here at Gold Mountain. “It’s not enjoyable to be down in the pack,” Liu would say later Tuesday, after a 2-under 70 moved him safely inside the cut line, “but once you reach tomorrow, everything is reset.”

So much about Liu, 15, seems familiar. The black Titleist hat. The fashionable black-rimmed glasses. The unusual pre-shot routine, during which he makes two practice swings directly behind the ball and then, like the Red Sox’s Kevin Youkilis, slides his right hand up the shaft and swings to simulate a proper downswing. Even his qualifying scores bare a resemblance to last year. At Egypt Valley, remember, he earned a No. 27 seed after rounds of 72-72. The rest, of course, is part of tournament lore: Liu clinically dissected the match-play bracket on his way to becoming, at age 14, the youngest champion in U.S. Junior history. “I wasn’t expecting to play that well,” he conceded.

Throw out two scores Monday – the quadruple-bogey 8 on No. 7 and triple-bogey 7 on No. 17 – and Liu would be in the top 5. “I played well,” he sighed, “and I just had two bad holes.”

When he arrived at Gold Mountain early Tuesday morning, with the temperature in the low-50s and the marine layer hovering over the surrounding pines, Liu saw Spieth, the ’09 U.S. Junior champ, on the practice tee.

“You better go low,” Spieth, 17, said, “so you don’t have to face a top seed. Anything can happen in match play.”

Liu knows that, of course. After all, reminders of his past success are everywhere. On the winding drive to the clubhouse, visitors are greeted with a sign: “Jim Liu and Jordan Spieth – Watch Tomorrow’s Legends Today!” On the first tee, at 7:50 a.m. local time, he was announced as “the 2010 U.S. Junior Amateur champion.” So he carries a certain swagger here, even if last year’s U.S. Junior title represents his lone significant victory. Liu, of Smithtown, N.Y., has four top-20 finishes on the AJGA this season, but none better than sixth. In the elite amateur events, he hasn’t fared much better: Top 20s at the Terra Cotta and Sunnehanna, but was bounced in the first round of the U.S. Amateur Public Links.

“It’s been a little disappointing,” he said, “but I’ve experienced the same kind of one or two bad shots that threw me off.”

Those miscues at Gold Mountain mean Liu, once again, will be in the middle of the pack heading into Wednesday’s first round of match play. Win that opener, and he likely will face off against one of the top 8 seeds.

Said Spieth, “I don’t think a lot of people want to see that in the second round.”

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