NorCal favorites Maverick McNealy and Viraat Bhadwar, the Stanford duo who took medalist honors in the stroke play portion of the inaugural USGA Amateur Four-Ball Championship, lost a close match in the round of 16 to the team of Draegan Majors, of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Brooks Price, of Dallas Texas. The brand-new event, played May 2 to May 6 at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, pits two-man teams against each other in a better-ball format that brings elements of teamwork and strategy to bear in a manner not usually seen in the usual golf competitions.
McNealy and Bhadwar, a pair of 19-year-old Stanford sophomores, are fresh off the Stanford team’s victory in the Pac-12 team championships last week at Palouse Ridge, in Pullman, Washington, where McNealy shot a course record 61 to lead the Cardinal to victory. The Stanford duo went up early in the match against Majors and Price with a par to the other pair’s bogey at the par-3 third hole. The score remained the same for the next nine holes as the two teams traded pars, with the first hint of a change in fortunes coming at another par-3, the 180-yard 13th hole.
McNealy and Badhwar might well have increased their lead through the middle part of the round had they embraced the ethos of the better-ball format, which is for one partner to play safe when the other is in a tight spot, or for one to take on the bold shot if the other is in a safe position. Case in point, the 5th hole, a right-swinging par-4 playing 484 yards today.
McNealy, first to tee off, clipped a tree branch with his tee ball when trying to cut the inside of the corner for a shorter shot to the green, dropping to the right fairway no more than 235 yards from the tee. Badhwar followed with a shot that was even further right, a dead-center hit on the same tree that fell into the rough at its base.
Had Badhwar played safe to the center of the fairway after McNealy’s shot fell short, he might have stood a chance of getting on in regulation with a look at birdie. At this and other holes through the middle of the round, missed fairways equaled missed opportunities, and it was only great scrambling that kept the Cardinal duo in the round.
At the 13th hole Major and Price, who both played college golf at Southern Methodist University, were each on the green in one with birdie looks, while McNealy’s tee ball hit the green and rolled off the back and Badhwar pulled his tee ball right, into the rough below the green. Neither Major nor Price converted their birdie opportunities, but they won the hole with par and squared the match when the Stanford duo failed to get up and down.
After splitting the par-four 14th hole with pars, another par-3, the short-playing 15th, threw the advantage in the match to Major and Price. Playing a mere 122 yards, the hole nevertheless posed a stern challenge with a short-front flag that was tucked behind the mound above the front greenside bunker. McNealy and Badhwar were also on the green, but well away from the hole, with 35-40-foot putts for birdie. Major and Price took the hole on a birdie putt by Major, going ahead in the match for the first time.
McNealy and Badhwar squared the match again at the long par-five 16th hole, a beast that was playing every inch of its 622 yards. McNealy got on in three, hitting a low stinger from the right rough that set up a wedge to the green, then sinking the 2-fooot birdie putt to square the match.
Major and Price regained the initiative at 17 with a birdie that put them 1-up with one hole to play, taking the win on the strength of an awe-inspiring effort by Price at 18. With Major in the fairway, Price’s tee ball landed in the right rough. Lying 148 yards from the front of the green with the hole a further 9 yards on, the 2012 SMU grad hit a highlight-reel 9-iron to 12 inches for a kick-in birdie. With Badhwar on the green but looking at a slippery downhill putt of at least 30 feet, and McNealy in the left greenside bunker, the Stanford duo conceded Price’s putt, and the match.
Fresno brothers claim “Low NorCal” distinction
Ryan and Jason Higton, of Fresno, became the only NorCal players to advance to the quarterfinals after Clovis, CA’s Bryson DeChambeau and fellow SMU player Austin Smotherman lost their match, and Jake Yount of Danville and partner Tim Mickelson, younger brother of PGA Tour star Phil Mickelson, lost 3 and 1 to opponents Zach Atkinson and James Edmondson.
The Higtons, brothers in their 30s, took on Todd White and Nathan Smith in the quarterfinal – the same duo that vanquished DeChambeau and Smotherman in their morning match. Smith, 36, and White, 47, are accomplished amateur golfers with extensive competition experience including the U.S Amateur and U.S. Mid-Amateur, and both have represented the United States on Walker Cup squads – Smith in 2009 and White in 2013.
After matching each other hole for hole through the first seven holes, Smith & White took the lead at the par-3 eighth hole with a birdie on the strength of Nathan Smith’s tee shot to four feet. Leaning on their experience in high-level amateur competition, Smith & White moved the bar up hole by hole, making birdies at #10 and #13 to go to 2-up and then 3-up. The two teams matched each other par-for-par through the 16th hole, where Ryan Higton missed a long left-to-right birdie putt that would have extended the match, clinching the win for Smith & White 3 and 2.
Asked about their first experience playing in a USGA national championship, Jason Higton said, “We lost by three holes to two Walker Cuppers, in a U.S. national event on a difficult golf course. They beat us on the par-3s, and we gave them #10 (with a bogey.)” Ryan added that their opponents,“…didn’t hit it long, but they were straight. They knew what they were doing.”
As for future plans, Jason said that they would probably play the Fresno City Championship (individual competition) and “we have a couple of charity scrambles coming up.” Advancing as far as they did in this tournament is something the Higton brothers can be proud of: as the only Northern California players to make it to quarterfinal play, they can legitimately claim the title “Low NorCal” in the inaugural USGA Amateur Four-Ball Championship.
White and Smith will face a pair of 18-year-olds, Austin Connelly and Sam Burns, both from Texas, in the semi-finals.
The other semi-finalists who will head into the final day of competition are Scott Harvey and Todd Mitchell, who took command of their match with Zach Atkinson and James Edmondson at the 14th hole, making birdies at 14 through 16 to win 3-up. They will face Sherrill Britt and Greg Earnhardt, both from North Carolina, in the semi-finals.
A universal sentiment expressed by the players in this event is that this competition is going to be a very popular tournament going forward. The team aspect of the competition carries huge appeal, bringing to a national competition the kind of supportive partner play that many golfers are accustomed to experiencing in friendly matches on their home courses, but which has been largely missing from the USGA’s national championship tournaments,
Semi-final matches tee off beginning at 7 a.m. Wednesday morning, with the championship match teeing off at 1 p.m.