OAKMONT, Pa. – Fox Hills Golf and Banquet Center isn’t exactly the first place you’d go to find a future U.S. Amateur champion. The expansive public facility in Plymouth, Michigan, features three courses – the Strategic Fox, and its 18 par-3s; the Fox Classic, a 27-hole layout where no nine tips at above 3,200 yards; and the property’s gem, the Golden Fox, an Arthur Hills-designed, 18-hole championship links.
James Piot’s membership growing up didn’t even cover the latter course.
“But for us, it was great, you know,” Piot said, “as kids we’d walk around and play as many holes as we can.”
The 22-year-old Piot, a fifth-year senior at Michigan State, is reliving those days during this marathon week at Oakmont Country Club. Only this time, when he finally completes all the holes he can handle, he won’t end it with a hot dog and Coke at the Fox Classic Grill.
He’ll walk away with invites to next year’s Masters and U.S. Open – and maybe as a U.S. Amateur champion, too.
It’s a bit unusual, but for those who have experienced it, the most pressure-packed day at this historic championship isn’t always the final match. For many, it’s the semifinal. The penultimate day elicits the type of nerves that make breakfast tough to stomach.
If you succeed, waiting for you are spots in two majors and a date in the 36-hole final.
Failure, however, warrants merely a pat on the back, some nice memories and a pair of really sore feet.
“You know everything that rides on that match,” said Andy Ogletree, who lifted the Havemeyer Trophy in 2019 at Pinehurst. “I felt like I put a lot more pressure on myself in the semifinal match, and I never really got it under control until the back nine.”
Piot and his title-bout counterpart, North Carolina junior Austin Greaser, now know the feeling. While they both survived to play for U.S. Amateur glory, their final tests to get there were gut checks from their very first tee shots. It didn’t help, either, that the weekend crowd had made its way through Oakmont’s pro shop and to the first hole well in time for the start Saturday's matches.
“You get in the moment where you see about a couple hundred people watching you play golf, and you know what's on the line,” said Piot, who nervously yanked his opening drive into a left fairway bunker to begin his semifinal matchup with North Florida sophomore Nick Gabrelcik. Greaser, squaring off against Texas junior Travis Vick, did the same.
“I never had to maneuver through a crowd going down one fairway like I had to,” Greaser said. “I've never experienced anything like that. … Most nervous I've ever been.”
It didn’t get much easier, but luckily there was enough confidence in the tank for both Piot and Greaser to quell the nerves and pull through. Piot is a scrappy kid who carries a massive chip on his shoulder; not only was he overlooked in the recruiting process but also after five top-5 finishes, including a win, last season. Greaser had a strong spring, too, and maybe didn’t get all the credit he deserved, either.
But statement performances two weeks ago at the Western Amateur – Piot made the Round of 16, Greaser lost in the semifinals – proved their U.S. Amateur runs not all that surprising.
Piot even confidently convinced his head coach Casey Lubahn two nights ago to make the four-plus-hour trek down from East Lansing.
“Get in the car now,” Piot told his coach. “Something special is going to happen.”
Piot didn’t birdie anything but the downwind par-5 fourth on the front nine on Saturday, but he didn’t need to. Gabrelcik, the reigning Phil Mickelson Award winner, was uncharacteristically sloppy, and the two players finished eight holes tied. That’s when Piot finally took advantage. Gabrelcik made a mess of the ninth hole, driving it into a ditch, and Piot won that hole, and each of the next three, as the mistakes mounted and the putter went cold for his opponent. Gabrelcik missed birdie putts on Nos. 12, 13 and 14, and he then watched as Piot sunk a crucial par save at the par-5 15th, after having to lay up out of a deep fairway bunker, to win, 4 and 3.
“He just had to cruise in and make pars and hope I didn't make birdies,” Gabrelcik said. “The way it was going today, I think he kind of knew that was unlikely because my putter just wasn't there.”
Greaser didn’t have much experience playing from behind this week. Entering his semifinal against Vick, he had trailed for just three holes in four matches and had yet to reach the 18th hole in any of them. He matched that number Saturday, as Vick led as late as the 10th hole. But like Piot, Greaser strung together an opponent-crippling run.
All week, the thick Vick had been compared to a football linebacker – and for good reason, as he played the position along with quarterback in high school, at First Baptist in Houston. But Greaser’s comp – "mini-Dustin Johnson," according to North Carolina head coach Andrew DiBitetto – proved more beneficial on this day. If he was nervous, Greaser didn’t show it as he strutted down the 11th fairway and then confidently rolled in a 15-footer for birdie to re-tie the match.
Greaser followed by winning the next three holes, capping the streak with a DJ-esque drive at the short par-4 14th hole, where he launched a powerful cut – a shape that he made a permanent fixture throughout the bag two summers ago (and not just because of Johnson) – that carried some 330 yards and stopped 35 feet past the flag.
“I busted that one,” Greaser said with a smile. He missed the birdie roll a tad left but earned the conceded birdie after Vick needed two chips to reach the green and missed his par try.
“Once we were walking off 14 green, I pretty much thought it was over,” added Vick, who attempted to rally with hole-winning pars at Nos. 15 and 16. But another Greaser beauty off the tee, at No. 17, forced Vick to get aggressive, and his bid at the Havemeyer came up two matches short after he found the hay off the tee, left his pitch in the rough and again failed to get up and down.
“It's the same stuff in amateur events: I have a history of playing really good the first two rounds, always near the leaderboard, and then falling down the final round,” Vick said. “So, there is something that I'm doing mechanically. It's not emotionally or mentally…. I was glad there was TV cameras out there videoing my swing so we can figure out what's going on.”
Greaser has history on his side: Three times since 2013, when Matthew Fitzpatrick won at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, has the U.S. Amateur winner not played the 18th hole in any of their first five matches. Informed that he would be making the trip to Brookline for next summer’s U.S. Open, as well as Augusta National in April, Greaser’s reaction was controlled.
“That's cool,” said Greaser, who apparently has a thing for U.S. Open layouts, having also reached the quarters of the 2019 U.S. Junior Amateur at Inverness Club. “But the job is not done.”
Greaser’s idol would be proud.
As for Piot, he was up late Friday night moving hotel rooms; the wedding party that had settled in next door to him was a little noisy. Piot’s neighbors may be switching floors Sunday night if things go Piot’s way. Then again, they may be doing it a night early.
Piot has plenty of reason to celebrate already: The kid from Fox Hills is going to Augusta National.
“Just seeing my dad, I had to go over and give him a big hug because that’s something that’s so special,” Piot said. “I never thought I’d make it there as a kid.”