Recreational golf is a leisurely activity – a little too leisurely, the way some people play it – but competitive golf has an inherent intensity which the calm exterior aspect of the game belies, and nowhere is that more aptly demonstrated than in the USGA’s national championship tournaments. Two national championships were contested this past week, July 22 to 27 – the U.S. Junior Amateur at Martis Camp Club, in Truckee, and the U.S. Girls Junior, at Sycamore Hills Golf Club, in Fort Wayne, Indiana – and the action in the championship match in the Junior Amateur provided an apt demonstration of the level of intensity that accompanies a national championship.
The players in the final match at a USGA national championship tournament will have played nine 18-hole rounds of competitive golf in six days by the time all is said and done, and seven of those rounds are intense, one-on-one match play. It is a measure of the caliber of the competition that the 36-hole championship matches play out so close, often coming down to the last few holes before a winner is decided.
Two accomplished junior golfers played their way through the selection process to face off in the championship match at the Junior Amateur: Scottie Scheffler, of Dallas, Texas, 3rd seed after stroke play, and Davis Riley, of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who was T-4 at the conclusion of stroke play.
After playing 36 holes of stroke play and five rounds of match play, the two finalists were faced with 36 holes of match play, in a single day, to determine the 2013 national champion.
The young Mississippian, Riley, took the lead on the first hole with a par to Scheffler’s double-bogey, and appeared set to hold onto it until the finish. By the time the match got to the seventh hole Riley had built his lead to three holes with steady pars. Scheffler turned the tide briefly at Holes 7 and 8, making his own pars while Riley slipped back to 1-up with a pair of bogeys.
Riley led Scheffler for the remainder of the first round, moving back and forth between 1-up and 2-up a time or two, but never relinquishing the lead.
Starting the second eighteen after the lunch break, the two players came out of the blocks pretty evenly matched, each posting pars for the first four holes. Scheffler, 17, who is playing in his last Junior Amateur before he ages out of eligibilty, squared the match with a chip-in birdie on the fifth hole, a 486-yard par-4, but went 1-down again at the sixth, another par-4, with a bogey. Riley, who has verbally committed to Alabama for his college golf, held onto the lead for a further seven holes, then a small error on his part – which may have resulted from a subtle, but shrewd, tactical move by Scheffler, turned the momentum of the match in his opponent’s favor.
Both players carried their approaches at the 31st hole of the match hole high and just slightly off the back of the green, but in good position to get to the back-right hole location. Scheffler who was away, chipped to tap-in range and was given the putt. Riley, who was closer to the flag but with a marginally less-favorable lie, chipped to a decent position below the flag, but about half-again the distance from the hole that Scheffler’s ball had been. The ball was marginally within concession range, but Scheffler made no move to concede the putt, and Riley, possibly taken aback slightly by this, pushed the putt, lipping out for a bogey-5, giving up the lead for only the second time in the match.
“Yeah it was [a momentum swing],” Riley said about the missed par putt on the 13th hole. “I felt like I still could have won [the match]. I was playing really well, my ball-striking was really good.”
At the 32nd hole, the 159-yard par-three 14th, Scheffler’s tee shot landed just right of and below the flag, bouncing forward and rolling to the collar of the green, pin high. It was a bold shot, attacking a flag which was was tucked well back and right, and a risk that could have backfired on him.
Teeing off next, Riley fired a shot which was also on the flag like a laser, but landed and stopped several feet short, failing to release and roll up closer to the hole.
Watching from the tee box as his ball tracked to the hole location like a heat-seeking missile, Riley twirled his club as he let it slide thorough his grasp, looking like a man who was watching a perfect shot perform just as he had expected it to. When the ball came up short, the victim of geometry, after hitting into the slight upslope below the hole, he was visibly upset, and slammed his clubhead into the turf as he walked to the hole.
Scheffler’s ball was in a good lie, despite its position up against the collar of rough around the green. The grass behind the ball was just thin enough to give him a good shot at the back of the ball, and he rolled in the 8-footer for a birdie to take his first, and very timely, lead of the match with little drama.
Scheffler won the next hole, the par-five 15th with his third birdie of the inward nine, knocking a 250-yard shot onto the green with a hybrid club and two-putting for the birdie – and was now two up with three to play.
The match ended on somewhat of a down note on the par-four 16th hole as a result of Riley calling an infraction on himself as he prepared to putt from just off the green. He said that his ball moved slightly after he addressed it, which resulted in a one-stroke penalty, and a bogey to Scheffler’s par, giving the Texan the win 3-and-2.
The victory may seem anticlimactic, but Scheffler’s late rally showed his mental toughness, as he came back from nearly thirty straight holes of trailing his opponent.
“I played pretty well down the stretch,” Scheffler said afterwards. “In the morning round, I gave away a lot of shots and I struggled with the putting a little bit early, then I started to figure it out.”
“You have to be mentally tough. I mean, you have to make putts. You need to perform.”