MAMARONECK, NY – Brian Williams pitched in from perdition to open the day’s play with lightning, while college stars Chris Troy and James Nicholas closed the day with thunder, using gargantuan length and unyielding pressure to pummel their opponents by a combined score of 8&7. Winged Foot members all, along with Williams’s partner Hans Albertsson, they electrified the home fans, whose cheers reverberated across the fairways as fervently have they have for nearly a century.
They were so joyous and ardent, you might have thought the Yankees were playing the Red Sox.
Yankees - RedSox, that’s just how one semi-final is setting up to be tomorrow morning. It’s the hometown kids – you have to call them that…they’re not old enough to drink! – and the defending champions: the irresistible force against the immovable object.
On the one hand, there’s Winged Foot’s youngest team in the tournament field, (with a mere six holes of practice together!), relentlessly and fearlessly plowing under both of their Saturday opponents. James Nicholas doubles as a Yale defensive back when he’s not pounding golf balls, while Chris Troy is studying business management in Cornell’s widely-acclaimed program. Playing together for the first time in a fourball event, they’ve already knocked out two of the top teams in the field, including two former champions (Luis Barco, 2014 and Pascal Grizot, 1997, the man most responsible for bringing the Ryder Cup to his home country of France).
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That’s two signature wins on their first day of match play together in the most august fourball tournament in American golf.
“We’re used to playing against each other,” Nicholas explained, recounting how the two also met a number of times at Winged Foot, and how each had won the Winged Foot junior club championship. Well decorated champions and battle-tested veterans from the fierce crucible of top-level NCAA competition, they are kids in name only. Nicholas was even playing in the group in front of Troy when the rising Cornell junior set the competitive course record at Baltusrol’s Upper Course, a sizzling 65.
“The next day he shot 80,” Nicholas jibed puckishly.
“Why’d you have to tell him that?” Troy retorted good-naturedly.
Then the two fell into a groove that Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier would have envied.
“We ham and egged it in the morning, then ham and hammed it in the afternoon,” explained Troy.
What Troy really meant by that was it took him a few holes to et warmed up. The slice out of bounds to start the day 1-down to opponents Grizot and J.J. Wolff was bad enough, but the topped drive on four was the breaking point. There were discussions as to whether it wasn’t so much a “top” as it was a “ground ball” or a “line drive,” but whatever it was, it was squirrelly, and it didn’t make the fairway.
You author refrained from asking if he made the ladies’ tees. Still, that was the turning point of the day.
“They started making fun of me a little, so I got mad at myself and went on a tear. I kept hitting it to five feet,” Troy explained.
Troy birdied the next two holes with laser beam precise approaches, giving them a 2-up lead. Then he gave them the breathing room they needed to coast home when he hit a towering 3-wood on 12 from behind a stand of trees to ten feet and a sure birdie.
“I probably shouldn’t have done it, it was a bad idea, but James told me to do it,” Troy confided, bringing up a fascinating point of fourball strategy: when to go for it, and when to play smart?
“We’re never really defensive unless our partner is out of play,” explained Nicholas. “We’re both playing well enough that we trust each others games. We know that if one person messes up, the other has his back.”
That’s the “ham and egg” part. It’s one thing to survive and advance when you’re not firing on all cylinders. But when both of them are on – “ham and ham” as Troy put it – look out! That’s how they dismembered former champion Luis Barco and 15-year old wunderkind Alberto Menacho, who - up until then - were on a tear of their own, scything through the stroke play qualifier and breezing into the quarter finals, only to meet the Ivy League buzz saw head on.
After trading birdies back and forth for the first five holes and remaining tied, (two wins, two losses, and a tie), Nicholas drove the 321-yard par-4 sixth hole and two putted for a birdie and a 1-up lead.
“It was against the wind, so I bombed it,” he said casually, as though driving par-4 greens at distances of over 300 yards was as easy as changing the channel on the TV set.
The lead swelled to 3-up after they won the 10th with a par and Nicholas birdied 11, playing the 400 yard hole hybrid-gap wedge-15 foot putt. When he did exactly the same thing on 15, the match was history, 4&3.
Power and precision, that’s a lethal 1-2 combination. And with each of their exploits, the gallery swelled around them, breaking into ecstatic ovations with every breathtaking shot. Buoyed by the support, the pair got stronger as the match went on.
“The more people watching, the better we play,” Nicholas confided, gratefully acknowledging the love the members faithfully showed him al day long.
“Yeah, when they came around it gave us motivation,” agreed Troy. “You don’t want to mess up in front of them.”
The galleries will be much larger on Championship Sunday, especially as they place their heads directly in the lion’s mouths – a showdown, pistols at dawn, with the defending champions, Roger Newsom and Adam Horton of Elizabeth Manor Golf and Country Club.
If there’s any team as hot or hotter than the Winged Foot collegians, it’s the defending champs. They were rock solid in qualifying: 2-under for the two days, securing the 7th seed. Then they won their matches Saturday by a combined 11&8! First, they breezily dispatched Lawrence Largent and John Smith 6&4 in the morning. Then they dismantled the powerful team of Scott Loving and Shane Heise 5&4 in the afternoon. And they did it with Horton driving all over Westchester County in the morning.
“We made some putts today,” explained Newsom. “That’s match play. You have to whatever you can to score. There was a lot more wind today too.”
Whatever oil they may have thought they were leaking, and weather aside, it was still the most dominant performance heading into Sunday. And it’s frightening to think they did that with out firing on all cylinders. They steamrolled to last year’s title with nary a scratch, and then came within one shot of vying for the title the year before that. The run they are on is starting to look as fierce as parker Smith and Dan Crockett, the last pair to win back-to-back Anderson titles, in 2011 and 2012.
One of my favorite writers, Hunter S. Thompson, once famous recycled his own lede for a Super Bowl article. The open ing line of his game recap of Super Bowl VII read as follows: “The precision jackhammer attack of the Miami Dolphins stomped the ba#@s out of the Washington Redskins…”
Well the next year for the opening line of his Super Bowl VIII recap, Thompson just changed “Washington Redskins” to “Minnesota Vikings” and sent it in. “Same as it ever was,” as David Byrne would put it.
Similarly, last year I wrote about Newsom and Horton things like “Amazonian fierceness and single-minded resolve” and “inexorable and implacable” and most of all “dominant.” I could write exactly the same thing this year. So far, it’s same as it ever was.
And Crockett and Smith? Well Newsom and Horton beat the back-to-back (in Crockett’s case back-to-back-to-back) champions in the semis on the way to last year’s title.
Will they be the first to repeat since Smith and Crockett? I think their in for the ride of their lives. The Winged Foot collegians are young, strong, full of energy, and more physically fit. Just look at them. Nicholas is a defensive back for a Division I football team…granted, Ivy League, but Div. I all the same. He’s the best golfing footballer since Hale Irwin. Meanwhile, Troy is the size of Hodor from Game of Thrones. I thought he was the football player the first time I met them. And here’s the kicker: Six rounds in four days is exhausting…anywhere. At Winged Foot, where every shot must be planned t perfection as well as executed, it’s downright grueling, a crucible. One mental error can be the difference between advancing and going home. The format of these tournaments wears you down so much that occasionally you’ll seen pillow fight finals here and at the Travis, Crump, and Coleman, because by the time they got to the championship match, everyone was gassed.
Then again, sometimes you get Joe Saladino against Big Ben Hayes. That makes up for a lot of pillow fights.
Here’s what’s going to happen: either the kids will make one mental error at the wrong time, or the exhaustion will finally hit the veterans. Either way, grab your popcorn, this is what we came here to see.
In the other semi-final, Gauley and Gauley, contrary to rumors, is not a law firm.
Instead they’re two brothers from Raleigh Country Club who’ll face Andy Cooper and Craig Hurlbert, the team from Bluejack National, for the right to play in the Final.
I missed out on interviewing the Gauleys, luckily. Ordinarily, I’d be mad about that, but I say “luckily” this time because I happened to run into a colorful chap named Steve Marland, who should have his own lounge act in Vegas.
Steve colorfully replayed for us the 6&5 drubbing the Gauleys put on him and his partner, Dean Burke of Champions Club in Texas, (where Orville Moody won the 1969 U.S. Open over Miller Barber). Here’s a sampling:
---they both stuffed it to a couple feet on 6;
---a sandie on 8 to a back left pin…;
---then they birdied 9! Who does that? A 510 yard par-4, they had 170 left and put it to six feet;
---on 12 they went left rough, right rough, birdie. Are you kidding?; and
---by the end, I was singing show tunes before hitting my shots.
6&5 will do that to you, and yes, the things the Gauleys did are enough to make anyone stir crazy. If they did them in a Texas money game, they’d have been shot on general principle. Lucky thing, because it was another Texas team they defeated in the morning match, Riley Pumphrey and Ross Hamann of Spanish Oaks Golf Club in Austin.
Finally, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention high-flying, live-wire, without-a-net act that was Winged Foot’s Brian Williams and Hans Albertsson yesterday. When darkness halted the 4-for-3 playoff after four holes Friday night, it mandated that Albertsson and Williams come back to face Dan Abbondandolo and Adam Pecora for more sudden death action to determine who would take the 16th and final seed, and then – on paper - become the expected sacrificial lambs to top seeded Cameron Young and Michael Quagliano of Sleepy Hollow.
Quags and Young had just fired a little ol’ 62 on the West Course. It was “STOP THE PRESSES!” stuff.
Playing the iconic par-3 10th, Williams hit a goofy slice short and right, the ugliest shot in golf, and was in rough so deep, you could harvest spinach. From that sinking ship of a lie, he pitched into the hole, winning the playoff, and sending Winged Foot into orbit with the ovation. It echoed from Albany to Southampton.
Their reward? A match against the team with the Headless Horseman on heir bags and a 62 in the record books.
They knew what they were facing. It was Albertsson himself who imparted the news of the 62 to Your Author while playing Friday’s qualifying round.
Now Hansy isn’t one to get flustered – he’s as cool as Mr. Freeze – but the look on his face said a lot. The general impression was something like “Man, 62. How do you beat that?”
1-up, that’s how. They hit greens from two fairways over, made every putt they looked at, chipped in again on 10, and generally outlasted Quagliano and Young, who got behind early, and ran out of holes.
Again, the number 1 seed in golf tournaments means nothing. It’s a graveyard.
Their valiant run ended with a 4&3 loss to Hurlbett and Cooper, but just like with Troy and Nicholas, the electricity of the scene and the passion of the Winged Foot members was overwhelming. It’s why these amateur and mid-amateur tournaments are the best scene in golf.
So as a red sun rises burning fiercely, it heralds a hot pressure cooker of a day both literally and metaphorically. It’s Championship Sunday, and someone’s name will be memorialized forever on the trophy and on the grill room wall at venerable storied Winged Foot, the Yankee Stadium of golf. This is why you play until you can’t see the ball. This us why you go to bed tired, with feet and arms aching from hours of practice. This is why you wake at daybreak and walk to the course on your own two feet, your bag as comfortable on your back as a tortoise’s shell. Golf immortality is calling. The rest of your life can wait.