Nick Flanagan became the latest out-of-nowhere winner in this summer of golfing surprises, wasting a four-hole lead Sunday before rallying to win the first playoff hole and upset Casey Wittenberg in the U.S. Amateur final.
Flanagan never trailed in the 37-hole match, but the top-ranked Wittenberg - an overwhelming favorite - won two of the final four holes during the afternoon round, including No. 18, to force the playoff.
But Wittenberg hit his 3-wood into the rough on the playoff hole, the 462-yard No. 10, and his second shot found the rough again behind the green. Flanagan hit an excellent drive, an approach to 25 feet, then calmly two-putted to win the championship even he never thought he could win.
British Open winner Ben Curtis and PGA Championship winner Shaun Micheel have nothing on the 19-year-old Flanagan - the third youngest champion in the U.S. Amateur's 103-year history and, certainly, one of the most unexpected.
Flanagan was a total unknown in the United States until arriving in early June with two Australian buddies to play the amateur circuit, taking only one week off since. In a sport where many stars grow up knowing each other from a relatively young age, Wittenberg didn't even know who Flanagan was until seeing him on the practice tee Saturday.
Don't think there was some history working here? Flanagan is the first Australian to win the Amateur in 100 years - Walter Travis won in 1903 - and he did so in Oakmont Country Club's 100th year.
Just as Travis did, Flanagan won only a few years after picking a golf club for the first time. He never played until watching Woods win the 1997 Masters, an extremely short time to learn how to play so well.
The 18-year-old Wittenberg, by contrast, is a golfing prodigy, one nursed and molded by father Jim, a former PGA Tour pro, from a young age. Wittenberg has spent the last four years at the renowned Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla., grooming his game, and he plays with a poise and calm rarely seen in one so young.
Wittenberg seemed so unfazed by the big deficit, the Oklahoma State freshman didn't even unbutton the top button on the Cowboys-orange shirt he bought Saturday at the pro shop. No wonder - he rallied from deficits of four and three holes earlier in the tournament, and he has been the dominant golfer on the summertime circuit, winning the Terra Cotta, the Southern Amateur and the Porter Cup.
As his father said before the match, 'He knows what he's here for.'
What was surprising was the coal miner's kid from Australia was more at ease and in touch with the game than the protege who lives on a TPC course in Memphis and regularly plays with PGA Tour pros.
Flanagan withstood one of the best comebacks in tournament history to win. Only Tiger Woods pulled off comparable comebacks, rallying from five down to win in 1996 and four down in 1994 during his run of three consecutive championships.
Flanagan, who survived a playoff just to get into the 64-man match play field, seized the momentum by winning the first two holes during the morning round. Wittenberg came back to tie it at No. 6, but Flanagan won three straight holes from No. 15 through No. 17 and led by four holes at the break.
Flanagan kept a safe lead throughout the afternoon, at least until Wittenberg closed to within one hole when Flanagan missed a tough 8-footer for par on No. 15, a 499-yard par 4.
Flanagan, from Lake Macquarie in New South Wales about two hours from Sydney, could have closed it out on the 313-yard No. 17. But he missed a 10-footer for birdie and Wittenberg halved the hole by sinking his 2-footer for par.
Flanagan then bogeyed No. 18, 484-yard par 4, when he drove into the rough and needed two wedge shots to get onto the green.
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