PARAMUS, N.J. – Nicholas Gross had just bogeyed The Ridgewood Country Club's par-4 seventh to lose the hole and allow his Round-of-16 opponent, Luke Potter, to tie their match Thursday afternoon at the U.S. Amateur. He then proceeded to badly hook his tee shot on the par-4 eighth into the left rough, his ball coming to rest in a gnarly lie about 2 feet from the USGA's 8-foot-tall, white championship tee sign for the par-3 sixth hole.
Gross never could’ve imagined what happened next.
As the 15-year-old Gross and his caddie, Rob Coyne, discussed with a USGA rules official whether Gross would be entitled to free relief, Potter and his caddie, John Brellenthin, walked over to monitor things. The official initially thought the sign to be a movable obstruction, meaning it could be easily removed, and pulled the sign out of the ground to reveal an iron stake.
At that point, Coyne, Gross’ golf coach at Downingtown (Pa.) West High, asked for a second ruling because he had read in the USGA rules sheet given to players and caddies at the start of the week that those signs were TIOs (temporary immovable obstructions). But while they were waiting, Brellenthin inserted himself into the situation by grabbing the stake and yanking it out of the ground.
“Luke was asking if it was a TIO and if you can you just move it out,” Gross said. “Then his caddie started wriggling the stake.”
Added Coyne: “It was awkward.”
The second official confirmed that Coyne was correct, and under Rule 16.1b, Gross was allowed to take one club-length of relief from the reference point, the nearest point of complete relief.
“We picked it up and moved it out of the ground,” Potter said of the stake, “and I guess he put it back in and you get relief from that.”
Gross’ drop still left him in the rough, though with a better lie, and a cluster of tall oak trees remained between he and the hole. His only option was to thread a layup through them, but he pulled it off, his ball missing the trees and ending up in the fairway, about 30 yards from the hole and with a perfect angle.
Potter hit his approach from the fairway long and into a bunker before both players left themselves 10-footers for par. They each missed, and each had to hole 3-footers for hole-tying bogeys, which they both made.
“There was some tension after that,” explained Coyne.
On the next tee box, Potter asked Gross to move back. Gross obliged and later called that a non-issue.
Still, while he was reticent to say that what happened at No. 8 fired him up, Gross did agree that after that hole he found something a little extra.
“There might have been some mind games, but I tried my best to play my game,” Gross said. “What it did do is it may have focused me a little bit more, just to that next degree that got me going, because after that I stepped on his throat.”
Gross won No. 10 with par to go 1 up, and then two holes later, he laid up on the famous short par-4 12th before holing an 8-footer for birdie – his third on the hole when not going for the green off the tee – to double his advantage. He won the next two holes, too, hooping a 10-footer for birdie at the par-5 13th and making a safe par at the difficult par-4 14th.
When Potter couldn’t get a birdie putt to drop at the par-3 15th, the match was over with Gross winning, 4 and 3, to advance to Friday’s quarterfinals, where he’ll face the speedy Dylan Menante, who beat Maxwell Moldovan on the last hole.
“It was a grind,” Coyne said. “I think [the eighth hole] got in the other guy’s head as well, but I think Nick had a little fire after that, a little different motivation than normal today, and it was nice to slam the door shut and finish on 15.”
Added Potter: “I just didn’t have my best stuff, and that’s what happens in the Round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur; you get beat if you don’t play well.”
While Potter now heads home to Encinitas, California, before driving to Tempe, Arizona, to begin a much-anticipated freshman season at Arizona State, Gross survives another day at the USGA’s oldest championship.
In qualifying for the quarters, Gross, who turns 16 on Aug. 24, becomes the youngest player to advance this far since C.T. Pan did so in 2007 at age 15. Before that, you had to go back to 1916 and a 14-year-old Bobby Jones to find a younger quarterfinalist.
Gross may be young, but he's proven this week that he can hang with the best amateurs in the world.
And his caddie showed Thursday that he knows the rules.