OAKMONT, Pa. – When it comes to putting Michigan State golf on the map, head coach Casey Lubahn always believed it would take a special kid who believed in bigger things. So, seven years ago, when assistant Dan Ellis reported back from a high-school district tournament in South Lyon, Michigan, ecstatic about a tiny freshman from Canton who had just shot 81, Lubahn was puzzled.
“Really?” Lubahn responded. “That is our guy?”
“His personality was cool, he was calm, and he hit some good shots,” Ellis recalls. “I saw all I needed to that day.”
That special kid was James Piot, and four years later, he arrived on campus in East Lansing with the belief that Lubahn was looking for. When Lubahn mentioned that Piot had a good shot at winning Big Ten freshman-of-the-year honors, Piot scoffed, “Kind of a low goal, isn’t it?”
“I want to be an All-American,” Piot stated, confidently, before going on to accomplish both.
Now, he’s a U.S. Amateur champion.
Piot arrived at Oakmont Country Club last weekend knowing that, at 86th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, he wasn’t on the short list of favorites to win the 121st edition of this storied championship. But he didn't need to be; in his mind, he knew he was capable, and by the time he punched his ticket to the Round of 16 on Thursday evening, he called Lubahn, who was back home, and said, “Get in the car now. Something special is going to happen.”
Less than 72 hours after calling his shot, Piot was the guy holding the Havemeyer Trophy after defeating North Carolina junior Austin Greaser, 2 and 1, in Sunday's championship match.
“It's the greatest feeling in the world,” Piot said, wearing his gold medal around his neck. “I mean, as an amateur, it's the best thing you can do.”
Glenn Piot Sr., James’ father, instilled in his son a never-settle-for-mediocre attitude at a young age. James wasn’t a country-club kid growing up – his first membership at Fox Hills in Plymouth, Michigan, didn’t even cover the top course at the 63-hole facility – but that didn’t stop him from wanting to be the best. He played up an age group every chance he got, even if it meant getting knocked around a bit by older, more talented players.
“He had no fear,” Glenn Sr. said.
Those intangibles, though, never attracted the elite programs. Piot had the skills to win his state junior and qualify for AJGA invitationals, too, which led to some soft interest from several SEC and ACC coaches. But the Piots always felt like in those coaches’ eyes, James was a fallback option.
Asked how the Spartans landed Piot, Lubahn was honest: “We were just there more.”
When Piot finally showed up in East Lansing, he had a nice-sized chip on his shoulder and much to prove. The same could be said for Michigan State, which had just finished a $6 million practice facility for the golf teams and added state-of-the-art dorms for its student-athletes. Piot, whose brother, Glenn Jr., was a walk-on junior for the Spartans, had everything he needed to thrive – and he didn’t disappoint.
Piot followed his strong freshman season by earning first-team All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore. The next season he made an All-Region team and won his first two tournaments. This past year, he finished in the top-10 seven straight times before becoming the first Michigan State player in nearly 20 years to qualify for the NCAA Championship as an individual and being named an All-America honorable mention.
“I’ve been describing it as him just climbing up a sandhill, because his career hasn’t been, like, Boom! He’s just been gradually going,” Lubahn said, “and every time he got knocked down a little bit, it just made him tougher, and he kept climbing.”
Piot’s ascension continued this summer. He tied for ninth at the Southern Amateur before reaching the Sweet 16 at the Western Amateur and then winning Michigan’s top stroke-play event, the Golf Association of Michigan Championship, a week before heading to Oakmont.
When he arrived at the iconic USGA layout, he was armed not only with tons of confidence and a refined iron game but also his trusty putter. The decade-old Ping Piper H originally belonged to Glenn Sr., who purchased the flatstick for $60 when James was in middle school. The elder Piot used it for about two weeks before passing it on to his son, who drew a gold line on the top of it and now keeps the blade “protected” in a green Michigan State mallet head cover.
Nicknamed “The Garbage Putter,” the Piper H has been in and out of the bag throughout James’ amateur career, and it only recently returned to action just in time for Piot’s U.S. Amateur qualifier.
“I was too cheap to go buy a putter, so I looked in the basement and, Oh, this thing is here, and then I went back to it probably middle of summer,” Piot said. “I putted lights out in the qualifier, so I'm like, This thing is going to stick.”
(You know what they say, one’s man trash…)
“The Garbage Putter” helped Piot navigate his way through the match-play bracket at Oakmont, where he only played the 18th hole once in the knockout stage before Sunday’s final bout with Greaser, who had been equally hot this summer, making the semifinals of the Western and trailing for just six holes in five previous U.S. Amateur matches. The magic wand also got things done down the stretch.
After going bunker to bunker at the drivable par-4 17th, Piot left himself 20 feet for par. With Greaser, 2 down at that point, facing an 8-footer for birdie, Piot stepped up and sunk it, and then watched as Greaser lipped out to end the match.
“The old putter worked,” Ellis said. “He’s confident with it, and he doesn’t care what he looks like out there. I mean, he’s walking around in Ray Bans.”
Piot, with surfer-cut blonde hair and a scruffy moustache-goatee combo, has this unique swagger about him. Unlike Greaser, Piot isn’t a physical specimen, standing only 5-foot-9 and just shy of 160 pounds. But he's very external, feeding off of big moments and rising to the occasion.
After surrendering his 1-up lead at the lunch break by dropping three of the first four holes of the afternoon and then falling 3 down with nine holes to play, Piot tapped into that mojo to begin the back nine. With most of the healthy, energetic crowd likely expecting Greaser to close Piot out early, Piot had different plans.
“I told myself on that tee box, I said, ‘I'm going to play this nine 4 under,’” Piot said.
He nearly did. Known as a scrappy defender on the basketball court, Piot suddenly stopped playing defense. He stuck a 9-iron from 150 yards at the downhill, par-4 10th hole to gimme range and proceeded to not miss a shot the next handful of holes, as he won four straight to open the final nine.
“He hit it right where he was looking that whole back nine,” said Ellis, who was on Piot's bag all week. “His club-head speed went up (after hovering around 170 mph all day, Piot reached 182 mph down the stretch). He finally got dialed in. We were walking up the hill on 11, and we were like, This is going to be a fun story when you pull this off. I don’t think he had any doubt inside of him.”
Meanwhile, Greaser started handing out gifts. He never looked fully comfortable Sunday on Oakmont’s greens, which finally had some real speed to them after days of heavy rain. He three-putted No. 11 from 12 feet, and then did the same from long range at the par-5 12th hole after hitting his second shot into a fairway bunker. He missed the green right at No. 13 and found the church pews at No. 15 to hand away another hole.
Next thing he knew, Greaser was standing among a throng of people on the 17th green, watching Piot, who had shot 3 under on the back, being handed the hardware.
“You know, it really stinks to come up just a hair short, but there were a lot of kids that probably wished they were standing where I was today,” Greaser said, “and I'm going to try and remember that and know that I played my heart out and gave my best.”
Greaser’s consolation prize will help ease the pain: He’s in next year’s Masters and U.S. Open. Piot will get those two starts, plus a spot in The Open at St. Andrews and a handful of Tour exemptions. Talk about playing up.
“When you keep dreaming and you keep believing, who knows where the limit is,” Lubahn said.
With his victory, Piot, who will be a fifth-year senior beginning this fall, became not just the first Spartan to win the U.S. Amateur but the first player born in Michigan to claim the prestigious title. In other words, it was a big deal. Almost a dozen current Spartan golfers made the five-hour trek from campus to witness history, and Michigan State’s legendary hoops coach, Tom Izzo, was glued to the action on television and anxiously texting Lubahn.
Five minutes hadn’t even passed after Piot won and Lubahn’s phone already had 415 messages.
“Michigan State is paying attention,” Lubahn said with a smile. That kid who had sat in his office as a freshman and promised to do something special? Well, he had outdone himself.
“It's kind of nice to show the guys out there that don't go to the big-time school that you can still do it,” Piot said. “Coming from Michigan, it's a phenomenal feeling being able to grind from a guy who wasn't highly sought after to U.S. Am champ.”
Even the self-believing, ever-confident Piot could barely comprehend it as he stared down at the Havemeyer in his hands.
“I was just trying to see if it was real or not,” he said. “I mean, I honestly was like, ‘Did I just win the U.S. Am?’”
Yes, James, that you did.