LOS ANGELES – They should have celebrated like this three years ago – with fist pumps and hugs and cries of “Masters! Masters! We’re going to the Masters!”
In the summer of 2014, with his father, Jeff, on the bag, Doug Ghim stood on the final tee with a 1-up lead in the U.S. Amateur Public Links. The incoming freshman at Texas was about 400 yards from victory and a spot in the Masters … and then he pumped his tee shot out of bounds and made double bogey. He lost to Byron Meth on the first playoff hole.
Ghim’s explanation that day at Sand Creek?
“Nerves,” he said. “I’d just never been in this position before. But next time, I’ll be ready.”
And so here he was Saturday, in the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur at Riviera, with a 4-up lead over Theo Humphrey with five holes to play.
Then Ghim lost the 14th hole with a bogey. Then he lost the 16th, too, after another bogey. And now, after bashing his birdie putt 6 feet past on the par-5 17th, he needed to calm himself down. He patted his chest, hoping to slow down his heart rate, and stared down at the green, taking two deep breaths.
“So many thoughts in your head are going at that moment,” he said. “I’ve got a little bit of demons.”
None worse than his collapse at the Publinx.
The day after blowing the tournament, Doug and his family made the 11-hour drive from Newton, Kan., to Chicago, singing songs and stopping at a rest area for a picnic. “It’s OK,” he told his dad. “I’ve got plenty of time.”
But over the next few months, the loss began to gnaw at him.
Teams that play in Augusta State’s college tournament the week before the Masters receive one-day practice-round tickets, and so all of the Longhorns made their way inside the gates in the spring of 2015.
They toured the Crow’s Nest, the Masters’ amateur quarters, which could have been Ghim’s home that week.
“I don’t really want to be in here,” he said.
So he and his teammates ventured out to the eighth tee, to catch up with one of the school’s most famous alums, Jordan Spieth. He was playing with another star, Rory McIlroy. And there was a third player in the group, too.
“Oh, no,” Texas assistant Jean-Paul Hebert said.
Ghim squinted and saw the standard.
The player who took advantage of Ghim’s final-hole meltdown at the Publinx.
“This is what I could have been doing,” Ghim said. “This sucks.”
Sensing the awkwardness, Ghim’s teammates steered him to other parts of the course and then toward the range at the end of the day.
The first player they saw there: Meth.
“Don’t worry about it,” one of Ghim’s teammates told him. “You’re going to be back here one day.”
Ghim needed to look no further than Spieth for inspiration.
Four years earlier, Spieth had reached the quarterfinals of the 2011 U.S. Amateur but kicked away the match late on the back nine. When he made the team’s annual trip to Augusta the next spring, he was miserable.
“Coach,” he said, “this is not the way I envisioned being here the first time. I’m going to try to enjoy it, but this really hurts.”
“Doug experienced the same thing,” Longhorns coach John Fields says now. “To have one foot on Magnolia Lane and to have it taken away from you right there at the end, it was just incredible.”
And the Ghims have been looking for closure ever since.
Earlier this summer, Doug, now a 21-year-old senior at Texas, played a casual round at Sand Creek for the first time since the ’14 APL. The 36-hole leaderboard – Ghim was co-medalist – was still hanging in the clubhouse.
He shot 65 that day.
Reminders were everywhere Saturday, too. In the semifinals, with a Masters berth on the line, Doug wore a black Augusta National hat. His mom, Susan, sported a white bucket hat – with the Sand Creek logo.
“Some people when they have a bad tournament, they get upset and get rid of it,” Jeff Ghim said. “I wake him up. I said, ‘Look at this. You don’t want to do this again.’”
And so he didn’t. Facing a 6-footer for the victory, for a redemptive trip to Augusta, Doug took his father’s advice – “Wrap it up” – and stroked the winning putt, putting away Humphrey, 2 and 1. Three years of emotion poured out.
“It was the first thing that popped in my head,” Doug said. “We’re going to the Masters.”
So is his finals opponent, Doc Redman, who needed a 13-for-8 playoff Wednesday morning just to advance to the match-play portion of the U.S. Amateur.
The rising sophomore at Clemson is arguably the hottest player in amateur golf. He recorded eight top-10s during his first season with the Tigers and earned two other high finishes in amateur events this summer before taking Norman Xiong to 22 holes in the Western Amateur final.
Playing 145 competitive holes over five days against one of the toughest fields helped convince Redman, 19, that he belonged among the game’s elite. So he didn’t fret earlier this week when it appeared as though his 4-over total might not be good enough to advance. He hung out at the beach. Went to a Dodgers game, too.
“I knew if I could get in match play,” he said, “then it would be a reset button and I would be OK.”
Unlike Ghim, who has played the 18th hole only once this week, Redman has gone down to the wire in four of his five matches.
Saturday’s semifinal against little-known Mark Lawrence Jr. was no different, after Lawrence won the 16th with a par and the par-5 17th with a 20-foot eagle. But Lawrence made a critical error on the home hole, three-putting from just off the back of the 18th green to hand Redman the match.
Was the Masters on his mind?
“Didn’t even think about it,” Redman shrugged.
His reaction was more muted, and perhaps that was to be expected. Afterward, he couldn’t single out an obstacle he’s overcome in his life. He has never suffered a loss as crushing as Ghim’s.
“I’m so happy for Doug,” Fields said, “because there’s been some pain associated with where he’s been.”
There is still so much to play for Sunday – the trophy and the prestige and the exemptions.
But for one family, a dream has already been realized, a painful chapter of their lives now complete.
The Ghims are going to the Masters, together, and it’ll be worth the three-year wait.