PARAMUS, N.J. – It all came down to a tree.
The 100-plus-foot tall oak serves as an aiming point from the tee box at The Ridgewood Country Club’s 584-yard, par-5 17th hole, and on Tuesday it played a role in deciding the fates of two players who met in the semifinals a year ago at the USGA’s oldest championship.
Travis Vick and Austin Greaser, grouped together for stroke play, arrived at the penultimate hole, both players fighting to make the match-play cut at the 122nd U.S. Amateur. Greaser, at 7 over, needed some heroics, specifically a birdie-birdie finish to get into what was shaping up to be a playoff at 5 over. Vick, however, was 4 over and only needed a pair of pars to avoid that playoff – which ended up being a 15-for-11 slugfest that will commence on the short, par-3 15th at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday – by a shot.
Off the tee, Greaser found the fairway, but his second required a cut around the massive tree.
Vick’s drive sailed through the fairway, past the thick rough and into the fescue, that same tree about 100 yards ahead and between Vick and the hole. His next shot was literally do or die – if he didn’t pull it off, he could be looking at bogey or worse, and likely an early trip back to Texas.
“I had an OK lie, but there was definitely doubt when I was addressing the ball,” Vick said. “I was like, ‘Make or break, just swing out of my shoes, hope for the best.’”
Vick ended up launching his ball with a wedge, sky high, over the giant tree and into the fairway, a shot that caused one veteran equipment rep’s jaw to drop – and he wasn't alone. Vick parred the hole and the next to shoot 5-over 76, which was just good enough to ensure a couple extra hours of sleep on Tuesday night.
Greaser, though, wasn’t as fortunate. A few holes earlier, at the par-5 13th, he had pulled off one of the most impressive up-and-down birdies this amateur-golf scribe has seen in over a decade, hooding a wedge from a severe downhill lie, in thick fescue and above the putting surface, killing it in some sticky rough and getting the ball to somehow trickle down 8 feet short of the hole. It set up Greaser’s second straight birdie, and it got the recent Western Amateur champ back to 6 over.
A sloppy bogey on No. 14 didn’t help, but once his second shot on No. 17 clanked off the trunk of that oak tree, Greaser's chances at a miraculous rally were over. He managed to par the hole, but he closed in double bogey, also hitting a tree on No. 18, to shoot 77 and by four shots ended any hope of bettering his runner-up finish from last year.
“Of course, I’m disappointed, but just didn’t hit the driver very well either day, and out here and at Arcola [the co-host for stroke play], it’s not good to be in the rough,” Greaser said. “It stinks. It’s going to sting for a few hours. This tournament means a lot to me. It was fun to do what I did last year, and I gave it my best this year, just didn’t have it.”
Greaser, who now heads back to the University of North Carolina for his senior year, wasn’t the only big name exiting Ridgewood early. Vanderbilt teammates Cole Sherwood and William Moll (+6), Pepperdine’s William Mouw (+6), Alabama’s Nick Dunlap (+7), North Carolina’s David Ford (+7), Oklahoma State’s Bo Jin (+8), Wake Forest’s Michael Brennan (+9), Arizona State’s Preston Summerhays (+9), Tennessee’s Caleb Surratt (+10) and 15-year-old Thai standout T.K. Chantananuwat (+10) also missed the cut.
Moll’s MC was arguably the most heartbreaking, as he double-bogeyed his final hole, No. 18 at Arcola, to narrowly miss the playoff, which includes notables such as Stanford’s Karl Vilips, Pepperdine’s Derek Hitchner and recent Florida Gulf Coast grad Frankie Capan.
And speaking of closing doubles, Stanford’s Michael Thorbjornsen, an All-American and last year’s Western Amateur winner, capped his day with a fatted fairway bunker shot and three-putt from 8 feet on Arcola’s ninth hole. Luckily for Thorbjornsen, the 2018 U.S. Junior champion, the double didn’t cost him a spot in match play.
But what it did surrender was solo medalist honors. Thorbjornsen was cruising at 5 under, 2 under on his round, before the bumpy finish knocked him back to 3 under. He instead ended up tied for first with Florida’s Fred Biondi, Ole Miss’ Hugo Townsend and Iowa State’s Luke Gutschewski, the son of current PGA Tour pro Scott Gutschewski. Gutschewski will be the No. 1 seed, followed by Thorbjornsen, Townsend and then Biondi.
“I’m just pissed about the double itself,” Thorbjornsen said afterward at Ridgewood, where he returned to watch Greaser finish up. “I don’t care whether I’m solo medalist or co-medalist. I’m not happy with the way I played driving-wise; I’m happy with the way I scored, but it's unacceptable the way I'm hitting my driver right now.”
To offer the young standout some perspective, he wasn’t the only one feeling frustrated Tuesday evening. Just eight players broke par for 36 holes. That small group also included Vanderbilt’s Gordon Sargent, the reigning NCAA individual champion, who fired a 5-under 65 at Arcola on Tuesday to earn the fifth seed at 2 under.
More than half the 312-player field finished at double-digits over par.
The field scoring averages were nearly six shots over par at Ridgewood and just over five strokes over par at Arcola.
And the co-medalist score of 3 under? The highest in championship history.
“Dude, it was so nerve-wracking,” Vick said. “This course is a beast, and trying to manage this course when you’re not on is a tall task, and that was me today. When you’re off, you can’t play this course.”
Safe to say, whoever is the last one standing Sunday with the Havemeyer Trophy, having successfully navigated this week's match-play tree, will have earned it.