PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – John Augenstein lives for the big moments.
Two seasons ago, when Augenstein was a freshman, he sank the winning putt to send Vanderbilt to the final of the SEC Championship. A few weeks after that, he drained a birdie putt on the 19th hole of his NCAA Championship semifinal match. Vanderbilt head coach Scott Limbaugh always says there’s no player he’d rather have when the light are brightest.
“He’s just fiery, man,” said Vanderbilt assistant coach Gator Todd. “He just does things under pressure that you’re not supposed to be able to do. He just has a knack for that.”
The legend of Johnny Clutch continued Wednesday at Pebble Beach, as the 20-year-old from Owensboro, Ky., took down the world’s third-ranked amateur, Collin Morikawa, in 19 holes during the Round of 64 at the U.S. Amateur.
“Playing against a player like Collin, you know you’re going to have to bring the best stuff,” Augenstein said.
Early on, he didn’t. Augenstein played his first eight holes in 3 over with just one birdie. Morikawa didn’t turn in his best showing, either. Both players halved the par-3 seventh hole with double-bogey-5s. But the rising Cal senior did enough to build a 2-up lead entering the par-4 ninth.
That’s when Augenstein buckled down. When he stepped on the ninth tee box, he turned to Todd, his caddie this week and said: “I need to play the best 10 holes of my summer right here.”
“It wasn’t the best, but it was good enough,” Augenstein said, “and that’s all that matters in match play.”
Morikawa deposited his approach shot at No. 9 into the hazard and lost the hole. He lost the next one, too, as Augenstein drained a 30-footer for birdie. Suddenly, the fiery Augenstein was back in it.
Augenstein took his first lead after Morikawa missed a 10-footer for birdie on the par-5 14th hole and he made a 10-footer of his own, and then hit the shot of the match two holes later. After Morikawa stuck his approach to about 5 feet at the par-4 16th, Augenstein knew he had to get aggressive.
“I was trying to hit a perfect shot,” Augenstein said.
He did, only it wasn’t with his second. After finding a nasty lie in the right rough, Augenstein thought he’d be lucky to get his third shot inside of Morikawa’s ball. But Johnny Clutch dug deep and chipped in for birdie to grab the momentum by the throat. (Morikawa would make his birdie putt to halve the hole.)
“I’m not really sure how he did that,” Todd said of Augenstein’s chip.
Really, he did. When Todd got the job before last season, Limbaugh told him all about Augenstein. The one they call “Flash,” well, he’s just that. He’s aggressive and emotional, pounds the ball off the tee and possesses soft hands, and has a swagger and style that rivals anyone in college golf.
In other words, the 5-foot-8 Augenstein packs a big punch.
“I’ve hit a lot of big shots and made a lot of big putts in my career,” Augenstein said, “so when I get into a situation like this, I don’t know what it is, I go into a locked-in kind of feel and there’s never a shot that I don’t think that I can pull off.”
Augenstein never shakes over big putts. He believes they’re all going to drop. Sometimes, of course, they don’t. He missed a par putt at the par-3 17th, a birdie roll at the par-5 18th that would’ve won the match and then a birdie look at the par-4 first for the win.
But Morikawa, who switched to a left-hand-low putting grip on the 11th hole, also missed putts, including a 6-footer for par on the first playoff hole that sent him packing.
“He’s a fiery little dude and if you get him on the wrong side, you never know what’s going to happen,” Morikawa said of Augenstein. “I started off strong, which was good, and then really gave him the momentum on 9. That’s what happened. When he catches momentum, he doesn’t let go off the pedal.”
Morikawa wasn’t the only highly-ranked player to bow out on Wednesday. No. 1-ranked Braden Thornberry lost to Jesus Montenegro, 3 and 1, and No. 2 Justin Suh fell on the final hole to Augenstein’s Vanderbilt teammate Harrison Ott.
“Just played terrible and got beat,” Thornberry said. “Didn’t do one part of the game well, and when you do that you can’t expect to win.”
Said Suh: “So many dumb bogeys that I made, but Harrison, he was consistent. He didn’t give up really any holes.”
Yes, match play can be cruel – 2016 U.S. Amateur runner-up Brad Dalke, reigning U.S. Junior winner Michael Thorbjornsen also lost Wednesday, and LSU’s Trey Winstead went 23 holes before falling short.
But Augenstein, he relishes this format. It brings out the best in him.
“Walking down the first tee, I’m looking around and seeing all these people, and I tell Gator, ‘How great is this?'” Augenstein said.
“Under the bright lights are the best.”
They’ll only continue to get brighter.