OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – After sinking the biggest putt of his life, Sean Crocker was so certain that his match would head to a third extra hole that he darted under the rope line and made a beeline for the next tee, a clever bit of gamesmanship.
All he heard was silence.
A few moments earlier, Crocker had raced his uphill birdie putt about 12 feet past. He let out a little groan, then ripped off his hat and covered his face.
“I don’t even know what the hell I did after that first putt,” he said.
His opponent, Alabama star Robby Shelton, missed his 20-footer to win. He had only a little work left, maybe 2 feet, so Crocker faced a do-or-die putt for par. When it dropped, he screamed and punched the air, and then kept on moving – under the ropes, across the cart path and down the hill, leaving Shelton to clean up his par and move on.
Except that he shoved it.
“I never, ever would have expected him to miss that,” Crocker said later. “I couldn’t even believe it.”
It was a shocking end to the best match of the first two days here at the U.S. Amateur. Crocker’s win in 20 holes at Olympia Fields punched his ticket to the quarterfinals, where he will face Austin James of Canada.
Crocker, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year out of Southern Cal, is quickly becoming a player to know in the amateur ranks. Out on the course, he is hard to miss – he’s the kid with plenty of swagger, with struts and club twirls and fist pumps.
What made his Round of 16 match against Shelton so interesting was that their styles couldn’t be any more dissimilar: Crocker is aggressive, confident, expressive; Shelton, meanwhile, is steady, stoic, quiet.
About the only thing they have in common? They’re both really, really good.
The pyrotechnics began on the par-3 15th, where they both executed sick flop shots from right of the green to save par.
Clinging to a 1-up lead, Crocker airmailed his approach on the into-the-wind 16th. Sensing an opportunity, Shelton then stuffed a 7-iron from 180 yards to 6 feet. His birdie squared the match.
“Just stupid good,” said Alabama coach Jay Seawell, who was on Shelton’s bag this week.
There was a long wait on the par-3 17th. Shelton stood alone in the shade, hands on his hips, head down, expressionless. Crocker passed the time by bouncing and balancing a ball on the face of his wedge, tongue out, bopping his head as if listening to hip-hop music.
When the green finally cleared, Shelton hit his tee shot safely on the right side, but Crocker stepped up and drilled a 6-iron under the breeze. His tee ball hadn’t even finished its ascent when he stomped off the tee, staring it down, loving it. When his ball landed a foot next to the cup – prompting a gasp from the hundred spectators gathered around the green – and settled about 6 feet away, he spun his club and roared, “Come on!”
“The more amped up he gets,” said Crocker’s caddie/USC assistant coach Tyler Goulding, “the more he wants to lean on it and hit less club and hit it harder. I think his divots got deeper and deeper and deeper as the day went on.”
The birdie putt dropped to go 1 up with one to play. Crocker, naturally, unleashed a huge fist pump.
The home hole belonged to Shelton. After a perfect drive split the center, his approach shot found the right side of the green, about 20 feet away. Crocker’s third shot from the bunker was almost close enough for a conceded par, so Shelton knew he had to make it to force extras. Dead center.
“How about that?” Seawell said, spinning around to the crowd. Crocker was so shocked that he flipped his coin into the air and held it aloft as he walked off the green.
After halving the first extra hole with par, both faced birdie putts of about 25 feet on the par-4 second. Then came the bad lag, the bold comebacker, the shocking miss.
Shelton, ranked eighth in the world, said the exact scenario played out in his morning match against Will Grimmer – a 20-foot birdie try, a 2-footer down the hill and no concession – but he sank the return putt. This time, he shoved it.
Seawell blinked away tears in the parking lot afterward.
“I haven’t really had a chance to get to walk alongside him that much, and to do this for the past seven days, I really got a great look at him and his character,” he said. “I knew his game is good. But I learned how he thinks, and it sure was a beautiful thing.”
Said Shelton: “I’m really not too upset. It definitely hurts, but I played hard. He just played harder.”
That’s usually not an issue with Crocker, the son of a professional Zimbabwean cricket player who didn’t begin playing golf until age 13, which is ancient by today’s standards.
Back then, his father, Gary, entered him in junior tournaments just so he could learn how to win. He did so, prolifically.
“We’re talking dozens of titles,” Gary Crocker said.
With all of those wins came a certain level of confidence – maybe even arrogance – and it showed in the way he approached the game. Crocker will let his opponent know when he hits a good shot. Maybe it’ll get in his head. Maybe it won’t.
“My dad always taught me to keep quiet and everything, but I see people like Tiger [Woods] and Rory [McIlroy] and the way they walk and you say, ‘Wow, that guy looks like he’s pretty good.’” Crocker told me earlier this year. “I’ve always tried to base myself off them – not necessarily cocky, but to act like I want to be here and win.”
A natural athlete, a fiery competitor, he needed only six years to rise from a novice to a U.S. Amateur quarterfinalist.
“That’s why we recruited him,” Goulding said, “for the attitude and belief in himself and the ability to do it when it matters. Now I think his physical tools are catching up with the attitude that he’s had forever.”