ERIN, Wis. – Kelly Kraft won the U.S. Amateur by learning to slow down in the heat of competition, but now his world was racing like it’s never raced before.
His mind was in hyper drive on the 18th green with Patrick Cantlay taking his hat off and walking toward him.
With Cantlay reaching out to shake hands late Sunday afternoon at Erin Hills, Kraft’s head was spinning with the realization he just upset the hottest amateur on the planet.
Kraft blinked and there was U.S. Golf Association President Jim Hyler handing him the Havemeyer Trophy. Bobby Jones’ name is etched on it. Jack Nicklaus, too. And Tiger Woods.
Kraft blinked again and there was U.S. Walker Cup captain Jim Holtgrieve grabbing his hand.
“See you in Scotland,” Holtgrieve told him.
Kraft could barely process it all.
“I about had a heart attack,” Kraft said.
Not a bad week for an unheralded player almost nobody wanted coming out of high school in Denton, Texas.
“Nobody wanted him except SMU and North Texas,” said Tim Kraft, Kelly’s father. “He was a good junior player, but not a great player.”
So many doors opened to Kraft this weekend. He’s got an invite coming to the Masters next year, and also to the U.S. Open and the British Open, if he wants them.
Kraft, 22, whose eligibility has expired at SMU, will have to remain an amateur through next summer to claim the major championship spots reserved for the U.S. Amateur champ.
“I haven’t thought about that,” Kraft said. “I definitely want to play in the Masters. So, I don’t know. That’s something I’m going to have to think about. I’ll start thinking about that after the Walker Cup.”
Kraft beat Cantlay, the No. 1 amateur in the world, the Jack Nicklaus Award winner as the NCAA’s Player of the Year as a freshman at UCLA this past season, the low amateur at the U.S. Open and the phenom who shot 60 in a PGA Tour event.
“Obviously, he played better than me,” Cantlay said. “But I feel like I threw away the tournament.”
Cantlay fought back from 4 down on the first 18 to take a 1-up lead with four holes to play.
“I made back-to-back-to-back-to-back mistakes,” Cantlay said.
His worst was at the 15th tee, a ferocious little par 4 at just 252 yards. Cantlay hit an 8-iron off the tee and pull-hooked the shot into a fairway bunker. He blasted his approach over the green into deep fescue on a hill and made bogey to lose the hole.
At the 16th, Cantlay three-putted from 15 feet, hammering his birdie putt 8 feet past to lose that hole. Kraft went 1 up with a par there and never gave up the lead in a 2-up victory.
“He made some mistakes,” Kraft said. “When you’re playing something this big, you might be nervous sometimes. There’s a little more pressure out there.”
Kraft is the third SMU player to win the U.S. Amateur in the last 14 years. He joins Colt Knost (2007) and Hank Kuehne (1998) as the school’s U.S. Am champs. They all played under coach Jay Loar, who was fired at the end of this past season.
Tim Kraft, Kelly’s father, got choked up talking about Loar, who flew in to watch Sunday’s final. Eight of Kelly’s SMU teammates were there, too, hooting and hollering for 36 holes.
“I can’t tell you how much those SMU coaches meant to us,” Kraft’s father said. “Going to SMU changed Kelly’s life. He really grew up there as a player and a person.”
Loar was beaming after.
“I remember Kelly coming into my office for the first time on a recruiting trip,” Loar said. “He was a very sensitive kid. Watching him grow up mentally and emotionally, watching him gain confidence, it’s been gratifying. He’s become a really cool customer.”
Kraft wasn’t among the top 30 collegians in the Golfweek rankings at season’s end, but he won the Trans-Miss and Texas amateur championships this summer. His peers took notice.
Pat O’Brien, Kraft’s swing coach, said his player’s ability to learn to be comfortable under pressure led to his victories.
“Kelly was good at getting into contention, but the difference this summer is how he learned to slow things down when he did get into contention,” O’Brien said. “Today, Kelly never got rattled all day. He looked so calm all day.”
Well, until he had the Havemeyer Trophy in his hands and joked that all the excitement just about gave him a heart attack.
“Awesome, unbelievable,” Kraft said.