PARAMUS, NEW JERSEY
| Match play is the ultimate meritocracy, and the U.S. Amateur has been known for its unpredictable nature. Still, even by that standard, last week’s event at Ridgewood Country Club proved that the depth in amateur golf is at an unfathomable level.
Six of the top 13 players in the World Amateur Golf Ranking lost in the first round of match play as tournament favorites including Gordon Sargent, Ludvig Åberg and Travis Vick quickly fell. Who took their place climbing through the bracket? Some were bonafide, highly ranked studs such as Sam Bennett and Dylan Menante, but then there were players who carried peculiar resumes. Some had thousands of players ahead of them in the rankings. Others had no WAGR page at all.
The story that highlighted the craziness came when world No. 6 Michael Thorbjornsen – a Stanford player who seriously contended in a PGA Tour event this summer – never led in a 3-and-2 loss to 34-year-old lead-tape enthusiast Andrew Von Lossow. The Spokane, Washington, resident who played six months of college golf at Southwestern Oregon Community College came into the week ranked No. 3,545, having just made his USGA debut earlier this year at the Four-Ball Championship.
Wearing his “loudest shirt,” Von Lossow was swarmed by excited gallery members wanting to elect him Ridgewood mayor in the aftermath of his stunning win. The graphic designer owns a company that creates logoed apparel and various designs for businesses, including his own, the Glen Cove Trading Company. His “Lead Tape Chronicles” Instagram page, which is dedicated to all the different ways golfers add lead tape to their clubs, has about 16,000 followers. Von Lossow wandered around the country caddying for several years before settling down in Spokane to focus on graphic design.
After the round, he joked about how his signature could be outrageous outfits.
“I might go a little brighter,” Von Lossow said after wearing a pink, yellow and green floral shirt against Thorbjornsen. “My all-time favorite outfit is the milkman. It’s all white. But I don’t know if that’s going to come out.”
It didn’t. Von Lossow did wear red shorts, but they were no luck as he lost the final hole of his round-of-32 match to succumb to eventual finalist Ben Carr.
Von Lossow’s unlikely triumph was just one story in a historically wide-open U.S. Amateur. The quarterfinals featured 15-year-old Nicholas Gross, a Downingtown, Pennsylvania, resident just starting his junior year of high school, and Division III golfer Alex Price, a southpaw who plays for the Christopher Newport University Captains in Newport News, Virginia.
Gross was the second-youngest quarterfinalist since 14-year-old Bobby Jones made it that far in 1916. The only younger player had been 15-year-old C.T. Pan, in 2007.
“To hear something like that at this point in my career, I don't put my name next to those two, and to have something that puts my name next to those two is really special and something I'll remember forever,” Gross said before losing to Menante.
Meanwhile, the world No. 1,212 Price battled through a gnarly back injury to be what is likely the first active D-III golfer to reach the quarterfinals. Nathan Smith reached the quarterfinals in 2014, but that came 13 years after his graduation from Allegheny College.
The topsy-turvy bracket generated one of the most unusual scenarios anyone has witnessed in the U.S. Am, as finalists Bennett and Carr took extremely divergent paths to the championship bout. World No. 3 Bennett beat Nos. 13, 27, 10, 9 and 8 to reach the final, somehow continuing to draw some of the highest-ranked players left standing at each stage. The average ranking of Carr’s opponents was 1,306, which included beating Price in the quarterfinals.
It just proves how many great players there are in the amateur game.
Stewart Hagestad was another quarterfinalist, and for a time it looked as if the mid-am could legitimately threaten for the title. His championship ended at the hands of Bennett, but he still authored one of the best mid-am runs we have seen in recent U.S. Ams.
It wasn’t only that the 31-year-old advanced to the elite eight. He also beat some excellent players along the way, proving that he can continue to compete at the highest level of the amateur game, despite his focus starting to veer toward his work career.
“I think in the grand scheme of things, I made it to the quarters and beat the No. 1 kid in Great Britain and Ireland (Sam Bairstow) and then played the best junior in the country (Benjamin James), having looked at the rankings,” Hagestad said. “Then I played what I think is the best kid in Australia (Hayden Hopewell) and then just lost to the best American. If I beat him, I would have played the best kid in California on paper. So it’s like everyone is a stud.”
What’s next for Hagestad? He has to write a Series 79 exam for business school in the next 10 days. A few weeks from now, he’ll head to Erin Hills for the U.S. Mid-Am.
“I'd really love to get a call from the USGA to go to Paris for the World Am,” Hagestad said. “I think I'm going to be a little short, which sucks for me. But no, I'm going to take a little time off and go relax.”
Ridgewood’s punishing conditions drew U.S. Open comparisons from several players who competed in both tournaments. With lush rough, narrow fairways, massive trees throughout the property – although not as many as there once were, thanks to work by Gil Hanse – and glassy greens that actually rolled faster on the Stimpmeter than the greens at Brookline for the U.S. Open, there was little separation between the two.
On the first hole of his second round, Travis Vick took driver and missed in the right rough. With only a 70-yard wedge shot remaining, you would figure the hulking Vick could navigate the thick stuff without much trouble. Instead, his second shot went nearly 45 degrees to the right, leading to a bogey.
There was a lot of that last week. Bomb-and-gouge was not an option.
“I was telling my assistant that's on the bag this week, it's like the same course,” Fred Biondi said in comparing Ridgewood with Brookline. “The only difference is one is called the Open, one is called the Am and one has 100,000 people watching you. But no, it plays hard. It's fair.”
The match-play cut fell at 5-over 146, with those at that score entering a 15-for-11 playoff. That was in contrast to last year at Oakmont, where 3-over 143 earned players only a 12-for-1 playoff. Arcola Country Club, which was the secondary host for players during stroke play this year, had a 75.2 stroke average, not much easier than Ridgewood (76.7).
Overall, there were 113 rounds – more than 18 percent of the 312 competitors in stroke play – in which a player failed to break 80.
The drivable par-4 12th mesmerized players and spectators throughout the week as the 285-yard hole refused to be pushed around. It played well over par for stroke play, forcing 18 players to make double bogey or worse. Only 53 birdies were made, and no player made an eagle – although Stewart Hagestad showed that it’s possible in match play when he roped a tee shot to just a few feet.
The elevated, sharply sloped green is only 2,200 square feet in size, about as small a surface as you will find in championship golf. For reference, the average green size at Pebble Beach is 3,500 square feet.
Byron Nelson used to play the hole as a “five and dime,” referring to his strategy of hitting a 5-iron off the tee and then a 10-iron into the green. That kind of thinking may have been helpful for some players this past week who took on the green, only to find themselves in an untenable position.
Some will remember the hole from the 2014 Barclays when Phil Mickelson went left of the green into a grandstand on consecutive days, twice playing off the grandstand turf near a beer concession. There were no such theatrics this time around.
Stanford women’s golf teammates Rachel Heck and Megha Ganne took in the action at Ridgewood just before their college seasons getting underway.
Heck had a particular interest in a first-round match between Bennett and Nick Gabrelcik, a University of North Florida player who reached the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur last year. Gabrelcik and Heck played together at the Palmer Cup, and Gabrelcik caddied for Heck at the Evian Championship – the two have been close since.
The match between Bennett and Gabrelcik, which ended up being vital during Bennett’s run, was among the most dramatic contests of the entire tournament.
Bennett controlled play for much of the round, heading to the 15th tee 2 up, but Gabrelcik won the next two holes to tie the match. Gabrelcik then hit a shot out of bounds on No. 17 to lose that hole, and he looked dead in the water on No. 18 when he missed his approach into the greenside bunker while Bennett hit the green. Stunningly, Gabrelcik got up and down and Bennett missed a short par putt, which took the match to the 19th hole.
“This match has been so stressful,” Heck said as she traveled with a growing convoy.
Bennett stuck a wedge approach on the first extra hole to dispatch Gabrelcik. A disappointed Gabrelcik received a big hug from Heck, a player who knows a thing or two about the vagaries of match play.
Another former player in the gallery who knew what competitors were going through: Buddy Marruci, the 1995 U.S. Am finalist who famously lost to Tiger Woods.
Rose Zhang, Rachel Heck and Rachel Kuehn have been selected as the three U.S. players who will tee it up in the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship taking place Aug. 24-27 at Le Golf National and Golf de Saint-Nom-La-Breteche near Paris.
Zhang, the No. 1 player in the world and recent recipient of the McCormack Medal for the third consecutive year, will lead the Americans alongside her Stanford teammate. Heck and Zhang played on the 2021 and 2022 Curtis Cup teams together, helping the U.S. to victory both times. Heck, of Memphis, Tennessee, is the No. 3 player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and won the Annika Award in 2021 for a historically great season during which she set an NCAA record for single-season stroke average.
The third member of the trio is Kuehn, a rising senior at Wake Forest who also played a vital role on the past two Curtis Cup teams with Zhang and Heck. Kuehn is the No. 13 player in the world, having registered five victories since 2020.
This will be the 29th Women’s World Amateur Team Championship and the first since 2018 when it was held at Carton House Golf Club in Dublin, Ireland. The men’s and women’s events were canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pam Murray, a past chair of the USGA Women’s Committee, will serve as captain of the U.S. team.
The men’s World Amateur Team Championship will take place Aug. 31 to Sept. 3 on the same courses as the women’s event. The American team will be announced this week, but Gordon Sargent of Vanderbilt University has accepted one of the three spots. Sargent won the NCAA Championship in May and has reached No. 4 in the WAGR.
Sam Bennett has publicly passed up a spot on the team because of academic conflicts. Austin Greaser and Michael Thorbjornsen would be the next-highest-ranked American players available on the list.