Arizona’s Christian Banke fires 67 on No. 2 to win Medalist, earn top seed
By Alex Podlogar
There’s only one past North & South Amateur champion in the field this week.
And she’s not even swinging a club.
She’s carrying them.
Thanks to a chance meeting on the practice green on Sunday – not to mention seeing her perfect weather forecast come to fruition a few hours later – 2017 Women’s North & South Amateur Champion Isabella Fierro finds herself walking the fairways of Pinehurst again this week, this time on the bag of Latin America Amateur Champion Abel Gallegos.
It’s been four years since Fierro, then 16 years old, triumphed 2&1 over Anna Redding on Pinehurst No. 2 to capture the 115th playing of the Women’s North & South, becoming the first Mexican-born player to win in North & South history. Fierro, who was congratulated on Twitter that evening by World Golf Hall-of-Famer and fellow countrywoman Lorena Ochoa Reyes, is now a junior at Oklahoma State and has played in the first two Augusta National Women’s Amateurs.
Fierro has returned in subsequent years to play in the North & South, and will be in the field in two weeks for the Women’s championship. Already in Pinehurst over the weekend – Fierro’s brother was scheduled to play the 121st Men’s North & South before having to withdraw – Isabella happened upon Gallegos on the practice green on Sunday. Friends since meeting while playing in a world team event about four years ago – “Him for Team Argentina, me for Team Mexico,” Fierro says – she struck up a conversation in the shadow of the Putter Boy statue.
“He told me he was having trouble reading Pinehurst’s greens,” Fierro says. “I thought, ‘Well, who would he know better who knows these greens better than me?’”
As if to further articulate her point, Fierro told Gallegos to make sure he got his practice round in that day. “I told him, it’s like there’s a thunderstorm every afternoon this time of year here. He was like, ‘C’mon, it’s not going to rain.’ Two hours later he texted me, ‘It’s raining.’”
That was enough for Gallegos, who was more than happy to ask the diminutive Fierro to grab a caddie bib and his bag. And after finding himself on the cut line entering Wednesday’s second round of stroke play, Fierro helped guide Gallegos to a 2-under 68 on Pinehurst No. 4 to comfortably make the cut for the Round of 32 match play.
“I’m not really good at reading these greens, that’s true,” Gallegos said through his interpreter – who else? – Fierro. “She’s helped me so much with my putting, with where to go and especially where not to miss. Her experience in Pinehurst is huge for me.”
Gallegos, who played in The Masters last fall after winning the Latin America Amateur, also has a berth in The Open Championship at Royal St. George’s in less than two weeks.
Fierro, though, won’t be available to be on his bag then. She starts the Women’s North & South Amateur the same day.
BANKE WINS MEDALIST HONORS
Four of the last six rounds he’s played, Arizona’s Christian Banke has shot in the 60s.
“Yeah, I’m playing pretty well right now,” he said.
As if anyone needed more evidence, Banke made the point again during Wednesday’s second round of the North & South Amateur, backing up his first round 5-under 65 on No. 4 with a sterling 67 on No. 2 on Wednesday to win medalist honors at 8 under and carry the top seed into match play in the 121st playing of the historic championship.
Banke, playing in the final grouping Wednesday, birdied three of the first six holes, including the treacherous par-3 sixth, to get off to a hot start, keeping enough of a lead to hold of Australian Karl Villips, who came in with a 68 to finish at 7 under, a shot back of Banke.
“I started off really well with a birdie on the first and was able to keep the momentum going,” Banke said. “No. 2 is really hard, and I knew it wasn’t a course where I could expect to make a lot of putts. I figured as long as I was 2-putting, I was going to be pretty happy.”
VAN PARIS ADVANCES TO MATCH PLAY
Pinehurst’s Jackson Van Paris kept his hopes alive in the North & South by hanging on to make two clutch pars on 17 and 18 as he flirted with the cut line.
Van Paris, who birdied the second and third holes on No. 2 to get as low as 4 under for the championship, fell to even par after bogeys on 14 and 16, one shot above what would be a playoff for the final five seeds in match play.
But Van Paris found the left side of the green on the par-3 17th, then calmly made another birdie with a great drive and approach on 18 to stay in a tie for 20th, comfortably above the cut line and into match play’s Round of 32 on Thursday.
The 120-player field has completed two rounds of stroke play on Pinehurst No. 2 and No. 4 on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the low 32 players seeded for match play. No. 2 will host all match play rounds, with the Round of 32 played on Thursday, the Round of 16 and quarterfinals on Friday and the semifinals and championship matches on Saturday. Spectators are welcome and there is no fee for admission.
Story will be updated
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