OAKMONT, PENNSYLVANIA | Moments after winning the U.S. Amateur, James Piot tilted the Havemeyer Trophy so he could read the names he had joined.
If given enough time to study the list – he does have custody of the hardware for a year – Piot will begin to appreciate the historic significance of his victory at Oakmont.
The last player to win the U.S. Amateur while actively attending a midwestern school was in 1978 when Ohio State’s John Cook defeated Scott Hoch at Plainfield Country Club. John Harris, a Minnesotan, won the tournament in 1993 at age 41, two decades after competing for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Some might include Matthew Fitzpatrick, who won in 2013 before enrolling for one semester at Northwestern, but it’s clear that Piot’s pedigree is entirely different.
Piot, after all, is a born-and-raised midwesterner, a 22-year-old from Canton, Michigan, who is headed into his fifth season at Michigan State, a school with little golf tradition. When Piot set the program scoring average record of 71.3 last season, he became the first Spartan to reach the NCAA Championships as an individual since 2002. For a tournament dominated in the past decade by players from powerhouse schools such as Georgia Tech (Tyler Strafaci, Andy Ogletree), Oklahoma State (Viktor Hovland, Peter Uihlein), Clemson (Doc Redman) and SMU (Bryson DeChambeau, Kelly Kraft), this year’s title belonged to a player who most in the amateur game didn’t know much about.
“I still think I’m dreaming. It’s something crazy where internally I thought I had the ability to do it one day, but to actually do it is the greatest thing ever.”
It’s one of the most meaningful amateur wins in the history of a state that has produced its fair share of great champions. Piot may not be able to compare himself to legends Walter Hagen, Calvin Peete, Leo Diegel, Dave Hill or Charles Kocsis, but he’s done something none of them did in becoming the first Michigan native to win the most coveted amateur event in golf.
“I still don’t believe I’m holding this trophy right now,” Piot said after his 2-and-1 triumph against Austin Greaser, an Ohioan who plays at the University of North Carolina. “I still think I’m dreaming. It’s something crazy where internally I thought I had the ability to do it one day, but to actually do it is the greatest thing ever.”
So who is James Piot, and how did he beat 311 of the best amateurs in the world?
He grew up at Fox Hills Golf Course in Plymouth, Michigan, about 30 minutes west of Detroit, in a healthy sibling rivalry with his brother, Glen Jr., who also played for Michigan State. After a respectable but unspectacular junior career that included being the youngest player to qualify for match play at a Michigan Amateur, Piot stayed close to home for college and has won three times at Michigan State.
When he got to campus as a freshman, Piot had the ambitions of a player at a southern blueblood program. His coach, Casey Lubahn, wanted him to think smaller at first.
“I said, ‘I want to be an All-American,’ ” Piot recalled. “He at first laughed and goes, ‘How about we just start off at All-Big Ten or something like that.’ I said, ‘No, coach, I want to be an All-American.’ I’ve always had high goals and that’s been something that has driven me from Day 1, just going over the top, and they’re paying off now.”
Piot earned Big Ten freshman-of-the-year honors in 2018, but college golf came a little tougher than he thought it would. It wasn’t until this past season when Piot became a consistent enough player to threaten the All-American goal he had four years ago. He was an honorable mention for 2020-2021, winning once and racking up eight other top-10 finishes.
The positive vibes date to last year’s U.S. Amateur at Bandon Dunes, where Piot almost took home medalist honors and then reached the round of 32. Then he finished fifth at the South Beach International Amateur, one of the bigger amateur events on the calendar. This summer, he’s made the round of 16 at the Western Amateur, clinched a top-10 at the Southern Amateur and won the Golf Association of Michigan Championship.
He was up to No. 86 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking before this week, but you can bet that will change in a major way when the new rankings are revealed.
All of that is impressive, coming from a school like Michigan State to now earning exemptions into next year’s U.S. Open, Masters and Open Championship. Highlight that last one, as Piot picked a great time to win the U.S. Amateur – St. Andrews is hosting the 150th Open 11 months from now.
The how part of winning the U.S. Amateur might be even cooler. Piot is short, both in stature and length off the tee. In his final match against Greaser, he was routinely being outdriven by 20-30 yards. On the 10th hole of the afternoon 18, Piot hit a driver that finished about 10 yards behind Greaser’s 3-wood.
Even with that disadvantage, Piot found a way to deftly maneuver his way around Oakmont. When he trailed, 3 down, at the time of being in that 10th fairway, Piot hit his best iron shot of the week to a few feet, and then capitalized on sloppy Greaser errors on Nos. 11 and 12 to suddenly tie the match.
From that point forward, Piot was one step ahead of Greaser. A smart shot into the par-3 13th led to a win and an aggressive tee ball led to creative pitch at the 14th that forced Greaser to make a tough birdie putt to tie. There was no hesitation in any of his decisions. On the par-3 16th, Piot played quickly again, into the heart of the green, and his tee shot on the drivable par-4 17th was left in the perfect position, left in the greenside bunker.
When he didn’t execute that bunker shot to his liking, Piot found a way to roll home a 15-foot sliding par putt. Greaser, nicknamed “Little DJ” for how he models his demeanor after Dustin Johnson, finally relented to the pressure.
“I felt like he didn't make a lot of birdies, but he just didn't do a lot wrong,” Greaser said. “He just kind of plotted his way around the golf course, got up and down when he needed to, made a couple putts, a lot of pars, and unfortunately I was probably making more bogeys today than I had all week.”
When it was over, Piot had fully earned it. Of his six matches, only one went to the 18th hole and three of them were over before the 16th hole. He defeated Matthew Sharpstene, a semifinalist last year, in the quarterfinals and he defeated Nick Gabrelcik, the NCAA Phil Mickelson Award winner in the semifinals. Greaser had just reached the semifinals of the Western Amateur and came in with all kinds of confidence.
This was no fluke performance. Piot mowed them all down with smart, consistent golf.
It was a surprise given where he is from and the history of the U.S. Amateur, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him be in this type of position again someday.
Top: James Piot is the first golfer from Michigan to win the U.S. Amateur.