Arizona’s George Cunningham takes top seed after winning medalist honors on Pinehurst No. 2
By Alex Podlogar
VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – Andrew Novak didn’t mind knowing he had to make the putt for birdie on 18 to stay out of a playoff. Of course, he didn’t really have a choice, either.
“Oh, I was informed,” he said sardonically. “My lovely mother had told me.”
As if the day wasn’t rough enough, Novak, who had begun the final stroke play round of the 115th North & South Amateur on Pinehurst No. 2 alone in third place, had tumbled all the way down the leaderboard into a tie with five others for 16th.
The math of the moment, though, was simple. Make the birdie from about 12 feet in the shadow of Payne Stewart’s statue and advance to match play as the final seed. Miss, and that meant signing for an 8-over 78 and God knows what.
“I knew if I made it, I was probably safe,” said Novak, who plays at Wofford. “And if I missed, that I’d probably be in a playoff. Of course, I didn’t know it was going to be that kind of playoff.”
As Pinehurst No. 2 once more lived up to its U.S. Open reputation – the course yielded just two scores under par in the 96-player field on Wednesday – no players outside of medalist George Cunningham and second-place Clark Engle could truly feel safe about advancing to one of the top 16 seeds when play began.
And many tumbled down as the round wore on, finally leaving six players to contend for the final seed available for match play.
Included were some of the week’s best players like Davis Love III’s son, Dru, Duke’s Adam Wood and Duke recruit Alex Smalley, both of whom started the day tied for 6th. J.D. Dornes had hung around the cut line most of the day and made the playoff, as did Lee Hodges, who fired a solid even-par 70 to move up from a tie for 34th.
“The raking I was in, there in the bunker? Yeah, that was my work.” -Andrew Novak
They began on the 14th hole, and almost immediately the field was cut in half. Love missed the green long and right, his ball settling all the way at the bottom of the hill into the pinestraw behind the green, leading to a bogey. Wood and Dornes missed short putts for par while Novak, Hodges and Smalley made par to stay alive.
All three made pars at the par-3 15th, with Hodges getting up and down from left of the green. On the 513-yard, par-4 16th, both Novak and Hodges made brilliant par saves from greenside bunkers as Smalley, who did not miss a fairway or green on any of the four playoff holes, missed a 12-footer for birdie.
“I got a little lucky on 16,” admitted Novak. “I was about two feet from where I was earlier during the third round. The raking I was in, there in the bunker? Yeah, that was my work. So that actually worked out pretty well. I guess that was lucky because I truly had the exact same shot a couple hours earlier.”
All three moved on to 17, where Novak was first to putt from about 30 feet. The putt looked good the entire way, and as it inched closer to the hole, Novak raised his putter and pumped his fist as the ball dropped into the cup for birdie.
Hodges then missed from about 25 feet and Smalley, with another good look, couldn’t get the putt to drop, leaving Novak as the final player standing and in line for the top seed, Cunningham.
“Man, now you really gotta play,” Novak said. “Now I get the medalist, so it gets no easier. But I’m glad to have a chance.”
Match play begins with Round of 16 matches Thursday morning and quarterfinal matches in the afternoon. The championship will be decided on Friday, with semifinal matches in the morning and the championship match beginning around noon. The public is invited to attend and admittance is free.
Cunningham was about as consistent as he had been in building a four-shot lead into Wednesday’s final round, finishing with a 3-over 73 after bogeys on two of his last four holes to hold off Ohio State’s Clark Engle, who turned in a tidy even-par 70 after his brilliant 65 on Tuesday to finish a stroke back in second place.
Cunningham, who finished at 2-over 212, understands everything begins anew with the morning Round of 16 matches on Thursday.
“I’ve got one part of the tournament done,” Cunningham said. “I won one part of the tournament, now I have to go and play a whole different tournament.”
North Carolina standout Ben Griffin, who’s competed for several years at Pinehurst as one of the elite junior and prep golfers in the country, finished third after an even-par 70 left him at 6 over. Griffin has played as well as anyone since hitting two balls out of bounds and taking a triple bogey on the 4th hole of Monday’s opening round.
“When it comes to match play, it doesn’t really matter now how you finished,” Griffin said. “It’s a whole new ballgame than these last few days. As long as you’re in the top 16, you’re in good shape.”
Chad Merzbacher, who led after the first round before stumbling with a 79 on Tuesday, came back with one of the two under par rounds to move into solo fourth after a 69.
“It’s just really cool. I mean, I love Pinehurst. This is home away from home for me.” -Will Grimmer
Will Grimmer, who returned to Pinehurst this week for the first time since playing in the 2014 U.S. Open on No. 2 a year ago, shook off Tuesday’s 76 for a solid 71, assuring his spot in match play in his first North & South Amateur appearance.
“It’s just really cool. I mean, I love Pinehurst,” said Grimmer, who made waves by carding the only known 59 in Pinehurst history during the 2013 North & South Junior on Pinehurst No. 1. “This is home away from home for me, and I just love the golf course. It’s one of my favorites I’ve ever played and will ever play. I keep reliving different shots and moments from (the Open) last year. It’s just special and it’s exciting to make the match play and give it a go at winning this thing.”
The North & South Amateur Championship is the longest consecutive-running amateur golf championship in the United States. Over the past century, the best in the golf world have vied for its coveted Putter Boy trophy. The winners now serve as legends in the game – Walter Travis, Francis Ouimet, Billy Joe Patton, Jack Nicklaus, Curtis Strange and Davis Love III, among others – and continues to draw the best in amateur golf circles.
THE 115TH NORTH & SOUTH AMATEUR CHAMPIONSHIP
Pinehurst No. 2
Thursday, July 2
Round of 16
No. 1 George Cunningham vs. No. 16 Andrew Novak 7 a.m.
No. 8 Will Grimmer vs. No. 9 Chun an Yu 7:08 a.m.
No. 4 Chad Merzbacher vs. No. 13 Taylor Hancock 7:16 a.m.
No. 5 Jacob Solomon vs. No. 2 Timothy Conover 7:24 a.m.
No. 2 Clark Engle vs. No. 15 Mario Beltran 7:32 a.m.
No. 7 Keenan Huskey vs. No. 10 Henry Do 7:40 a.m.
No. 3 Ben Griffin vs. No. 14 Dylan Meyer 7:48 a.m.
No. 6 Sean Walsh vs. No. 11 Nicholas Pandelena 7:56
Friday, July 3