The USGA’s abolition of the Amateur Public Links Championship and Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship after the 2014 events, and the creation of the Amateur Four-Ball Championship and Women’s Amateur Four-Ball Championship, was partially a move to bring a popular recreational golf format to a competitive level on the national stage and partially a reaction to the “Publinx” morphing, in recent years, into just another championship for college stars. The inaugural running of the Amateur Four-Ball, May 2 through May 6 at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, has proven the formula, with some high-seed teams of college golfers falling away on the path to the finals.
The four teams which contested the semi-final matches this morning on the Olympic Club’s iconic Lake Course were composed of 6 mid-ams ranging in age from 36 to 49 and two college-bound 18-year-olds. Five of the six mid-ams have some level of professional golf experience and are now reinstated amateurs, but all have this in common: a love of golf, a desire to compete, and a wealth of experience.
In the morning’s first match, Sherrill Britt, 49, and Greg Earnhardt, 46, both from North Carolina, faced off against Scott Harvey, 36, another North Carolinian, and Todd Mitchell, 36, of Bloomington, Ill. The match was all square after 18 holes, each team carding a best-ball 2-under 68. Playing extra holes starting at #10, Britt sank a birdie putt to decide the match.
The second semi-final match saw Nathan Smith, 36, of Pittsburgh, and partner Todd White, 47, of Spartanburg, SC, taking on the sole remaining youngsters in the tournament, Shreveport, LA, native Sam Burns, 18, and Austin Connelly, 18, of Irving, Texas. Todd White must have felt right at home in the company of a pair of teenagers – back home in South Carolina he is a high school history teacher.
After going down by two within the first seven holes, the two teens came back strong with back-to-back wins at the 9th and 10th holes to square the match. Smith/White responded with wins at 12 and 14 to go two up, the teens then won #15 on a birdie to get back to within one. After splitting 16 with pars, Smith/White took the match on a monster, 50+ foot birdie putt by White on the 17th green.
The championship match then became a showdown between experienced mid-amateur players. Sherrill Britt played in the 2011 U.S. Amateur and the 2013 Mid-Amateur, and his partner Greg Earnhardt has played in six previous USGA championships, including the 1994 and 2001 U.S. Amateurs, and was a member of the North Carolina squad that tied for second at the 2003 USGA Men’s State Team Championship.
On the other side of the final match, Nathan Smith is a veteran of 33 USGA amateur championships. He is a four-time U.S. Mid-Am Champion (2003, 2009, 2010, and 2012), was a quarter-finalist in the 2014 U. S. Amateur, and a member of the winning 2009 and 2013 U.S. Walker Cup teams, and the 2010 USA Copa de las Americas team. His partner, Todd White, has played in 15 previous USGA Championships, including the 1995 U.S. Open. White was a semifinalist in the 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship and was teammates with Nathan Smith on the 2013 U.S. Walker Cup squad. Smith & White, who have played in just shy of 50 high-level amateur tournaments between them, including having been teammates on the victorious 2013 U.S. Walker Cup team, know what championship pressure is like.
Asked about the benefit of his experience in championship tournaments, including four Masters (as a result of his Mid-Am titles) and how that helped him today, Smith said, “Any time you play on that stage you’re gonna learn something about yourself and about your golf game and what it is under the heat – certain swing thoughts that work and certain that don’t – in front of that many people; it’s very helpful. If you’re out there playing today and there’s 100 people following you that’s not something that’s going to faze you (like) when there’s 10,000 people around the tee.”
That wealth of experience stood the team of Smith & White in good stead in the championship match. Britt & Earnhardt, who may have been fatigued as a result of playing their semi-final match without caddies, carrying their own bags, got behind the 8-ball early when their opponents won the first four holes with par-par-birdie-par. The two North Carolinians pushed back with a win at the fifth hole on an Earnhardt birdie, but went back to 4-down at the next hole, a 458-yard par-4, when Smith, who was the only one of the four to get on in two, rolled in a slippery downhill putt for birdie.
The two teams matched par-for-par through the 10th hole with the match holding at 4-up–Smith/White before back-to-back bogeys by Britt/Earnhardt at holes 11 and 12 sank them deeper into the hole.
When the match came to the 13th hole, a par-3 down at the bottom of the course that was playing 188 yards with the semi-final tee and flag setup, Smith & White were “dormie six”, that is, six holes up with six to play. White was first up at #13, and standing on the tee he was debating between a 6- and a 7-iron. He pulled the seven, stepped up and hit it to three feet below the back-left flag.
Smith also put his tee shot on the green, well above the flag, but Britt and Earnhardt were both off the green, Britt in the right-front bunker and Earnhardt in the rough left. Each got on with their second shots, but not as close as White, so the putt and the hole were conceded, and the match was over, Smith and White victorious at 7 and 5.
Asked about the shot, White said, “During the course of the week I guess my partner here learned my game well enough and he said ‘Hit the seven’, and I said ‘Are you sure?’ and he said ‘Hit the seven!’ … and I hit the seven. Three feet, and then here we are.”
Consistent high-quality golf was key to Smith & White’s victory. They played the final 76 holes of the tournament bogey-free, their sole over-par hole coming at the second hole in the first round of match play – and that includes two rounds of golf, semi-final and final, playing to the same hole locations which were used for the 2012 U. S. Open.
Smith who teaches high school government and history in Spartanburg, North Carolina, was asked what it will mean to take this victory back to his students.
“Anyone can look at kids and say ‘Look, hard work pays off, but when I go into the classroom, … I’ll direct them to the website so they can look at it and see what was going on, but hopefully they’ll see firsthand that hard work and perseverance does pay off.’ ”
A common sentiment which was expressed by all of the contestants in this brand-new event was how popular they think it will be going forward. Nathan Smith said, “I think the event’s really going to take off. I think it’s going to become one of the most popular USGA events.” and Todd White said, “I think the event actually carries the mantra of the USGA, ‘For The Good Of The Game.’ This event is good for the game.”