OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – That groan you heard here Wednesday was from two of the top five amateurs in the world who were matched up in the Round of 64 at the U.S. Amateur.
So much for a first-round cakewalk.
Lee McCoy and Hunter Stewart are ranked Nos. 4 and 5 in the world, respectively, but they just so happened to earn the Nos. 4 and 61 seeds out of stroke-play qualifying at Olympia Fields.
It’s believed to be the first time that two top-five amateurs squared off so early in the Amateur.
“The reaction was what you’d expect,” McCoy said with a smile, “and the challenge is to fight letting yourself do that. My attitude was that if you’re going to try and win the U.S. Amateur, you’re going to have to beat somebody good. Might as well beat them in the Round of 64.”
If only it were so easy.
On a day when the wind consistently blew 20 mph and Olympia Fields’ North Course played even longer after heavy rain, Stewart made six birdies in 16 holes – one of the best rounds of the week, on either course here – and left McCoy wondering what else he could have done.
“You can’t stop a guy from making birdie,” McCoy said. “You can just try to make it on top of him. I did a couple of times, but that was just an incredible round of golf.”
After trailing early in the match, Stewart, a first-team All-American who graduated from Vanderbilt last spring, ran off five birdies in a seven-hole stretch to build a comfortable lead. He won the match, 3 and 2.
“It’s never fun to play a guy who has been a teammate in the past or is going to be a teammate with you again,” Stewart said. “I wouldn’t want to play any of those guys. They’re a tough match.”
“We have pretty similar games – hit a lot of fairways and greens and just kind of dink it around and annoy people,” McCoy said. “That’s an advantage I would have had over pretty much every other guy in the field, just being able to hit a ton of fairways and drive a guy nuts when you’re sitting there looking at 15 feet for birdie on every hole. But Hunter was looking at 6 feet for birdie on half of them. … Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but just sit there and take it.”
Both McCoy and Stewart have already been named to the U.S. Walker Cup team.
This performance should give captain Spider Miller plenty to think about when he considers potential partnerships for Royal Lytham.
“I’m glad he’s on our side and not the other side,” McCoy said. “We can just annoy people hitting fairways. We can set each other up so good in alternate shot. If he plays like that, and I play like I did today, we will not lose. I bet everything I have – which isn’t much – on it.”
Stewart needed to advance out of an 18-for-10 playoff just to make match play, and when he saw the bracket come out, he thought: “Well, I better bring it.”
“It was either show up or go home,” he said. “I feel like we bring the best out of each other. He kind of brought it out of me today. He raised the energy level and I got in a flow out there."
Stewart clinched his Walker Cup spot by winning the prestigious Northeast Amateur earlier in the summer. He hasn’t played much since. He took off eight days after that victory and then finished fifth at the Players Amateur, which was more a product of course knowledge than good form. After another planned break, he showed up rusty at the Western Amateur and missed the cut, an event that he considers a tuneup for the U.S. Am and next month’s Walker Cup.
Why all of the time off?
When Stewart was in school, he always shelved the clubs in late October, after the team’s final event in Florida. Now, with a pro career looming, he needs to stay fresh until the rest of the year, or at least until Dec. 15, the final day of Q-School.
McCoy, meanwhile, is staying at Georgia for his senior season, and he’ll be glad not to see Stewart in black and gold anymore.
Stewart had a two-shot lead heading into the final round of a college event at Pebble Beach. McCoy thought that he’d caught him on the last day, playing the first seven holes in 4 under par, but his mood changed when he asked a volunteer for Stewart’s status. Turns out he had just made the turn in 5 under. Stewart eventually won by two.
Two weeks later, McCoy edged Stewart for a win in Tennessee, and the duo went head-to-head a few more times at the SEC Championship and NCAAs.
And who knows? They might team up in a few weeks at the Walker Cup.
"The good thing about golf is that you rarely go head to head,” McCoy said. “Most of the time it’s in college, and he’s done with college. Whether he has my number or not, I don’t know, but we’re not going to find out anymore. We’re done. I will very rarely play him again unless it’s five years from now on Tour.
“And the good news then is if Hunter clips me in a Tour event, I’m still going to go home with 700 grand. It’s a little better than a plane ticket home.”