LOS ANGELES – Three of the four U.S. Amateur semifinalists are standout college players and known commodities in the amateur golf community.
And then there’s Mark Lawrence Jr.
He’s No. 386 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. He’s a dominant player in his home state of Virginia but a mystery to the rest of the country. This isn’t just his first U.S. Amateur appearance. It’s his first USGA appearance, period. He didn’t play the U.S. Junior. Or the now-defunct Public Links. Or the Four-Ball. Or the Open. Nothing.
Not even his fellow competitors knew anything about him.
“Before this tournament? No,” said his quarterfinal opponent, Dawson Armstrong.
But that all changed Friday, when Lawrence moved two steps away from the U.S. Amateur title with a 3-and-2 victory over Armstrong, one of the favorites entering the match-play portion at Riviera.
“He’s got a good golf game,” Armstrong said in the locker room afterward. “He’s in the semifinals for a reason.”
Lawrence, a rising junior at Virginia Tech, will face Doc Redman on Saturday, with a likely invitation to the 2018 Masters on the line.
“I’m maybe a little bit surprised,” Lawrence said, “but I’ve been really confident in my golf game. I thought if I could get myself in the right position, I could go pretty far.”
But this far?
Lawrence’s most significant victory to date was the Virginia State Amateur title, which he captured last month, 37 years after his father won. All of his other victories have been regional.
“But he’s been a great player for a long, long time,” said Virginia Tech coach Jay Hardwick, “so it’s not a surprise to any of us in the state that have seen him play.”
For everyone else, though, this is the first time Lawrence has starred on a big stage.
He attempted to qualify for the U.S. Junior once, but he shot the third-lowest qualifying score in the country and was beat out for the lone spot. He didn’t tee it up in any U.S. Amateur qualifiers, either, because the event always conflicted with the first week of school.
“I haven’t played in a lot of big events,” he said. “It’s really expensive and you have to have a good rank to get in to begin with.”
Unlike many of his peers who travel the world playing in amateur events, Lawrence works full time in the summer at Kinloch Golf Club, about 10 minutes from his parents’ home in Richmond.
Valet attendant, range picker, shuttle driver – Lawrence does it all four days a week, in eight-hour shifts (from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.).
“He doesn’t really get the opportunity to travel much in the summer,” Hardwick said, “but that also makes him hungrier. It can be a catch-22, because if you don’t get to play a lot the pressure isn’t as easy to handle, but he’s always been strong when it comes to that. This plan works for him, and I admire him for that.”
Added Lawrence’s caddie and friend of 13 years, Chris Kapsak: “Mad respect for him. It’s a lot of money to do these types of tournaments, but he said he wanted to give it a try, and he took advantage of the one opportunity and did something like this.”
Lawrence began his college career at Auburn but transferred to Virginia Tech after one disappointing season to be closer to home. Working with assistant coach Brian Sharp, Lawrence overhauled his game, transitioning from a push-draw to a slight fade, a move that has produced more consistent, controlled shots.
Another change was his unique putting method, which combines a mid-length putter, an armbar, a ball position near his back foot and a claw grip. Yeah, there’s a lot going on.
“But it works for him,” Hardwick said. “Putting is the one thing that doesn’t have to be perfect looking. What’s perfect to me is when the ball goes in the hole.”
And it has all week.
Lawrence opened his U.S. Amateur with a 64 at Bel-Air. Even with a 3-over 73 in the second round of qualifying, he earned a high seed in match play.
Jumping out to quick leads each round, Lawrence knocked off 2015 U.S. Amateur runner-up Derek Bard, Tyler Strafaci and Shae Wools-Cobb. His opponent in the quarterfinals was Armstrong, the 2015 Western Amateur champion and one of the Walker Cup bubble boys.
But Lawrence caught a break when Armstrong came down with food poisoning Thursday and spent most of the night in the bathroom. Armstrong’s fever spiked in the afternoon, and he did well just to last until the 16th hole.
“Taking so many pills to stay physically stable, your touch and feel goes away,” Armstrong said afterward. “I tried to stay as mentally sharp as I could, but sooner or later, with those feelings happening, you’ve got to get lucky on a day like this, and I just didn’t have it today, sadly.”
And Lawrence played solidly after a shaky start, winning three holes in a row on the back nine to cruise to a convincing victory.
“With his distance, he’s able to hit softer shots when fuller shots are demanded for the shorter players,” Armstrong said. “He’s able to have more control of his game, and when his putter is rolling like it is this week, he can be pretty dangerous.”
Another stiff challenge awaits, against Redman, a sophomore at Clemson who two weeks ago reached the finals of the Western Amateur.
It’s another match in which Lawrence will be the underdog. Not that he’s paying attention.
“I was about 200 ranking spots behind the other seven guys in the quarterfinals,” he said, “but I still had the mindset that I could compete.
“The way golf is right now, everybody is really good. Everybody can win.”
And that includes No. 386.