I’ve played a lot of golf in my life but I have never been a part of a match play tournament. With that being said, match play is my favorite brand of golf. Par is insignificant and momentum is paramount.
Like many major amateur tournaments, the Western Amateur ends in match play. Seeding is done over four rounds of stroke play and then the real fun begins. Everything you have done is thrown out the window and you have to beat the player across the tee.
Yesterday, Brandon Wu faced off against Cole Hammer in the semi-finals of the Western Am outside of Chicago. Even though Hammer and Wu both have strong resumes, I wasn’t really sure what to expect out of the match. I had never seen either of them play and had no idea what their strategy would be as they traversed Sunset Ridge Country Club. All I knew was that Wu was an established member of Stanford’s golf team and that Hammer would be a future star for the Texas Longhorns.
Hammer hit 3-wood into the left rough on number one and Wu hit an iron into the right trees.
Fast forward 5 holes, Hammer is -3, three up on Wu, and has my full attention.
The kid played very aggressively on the opening four holes, hitting nothing less than 3 wood off the tee. He can move the ball right to left or hit a heavy ball that just falls right, it’s very tour-esque. Wu was by no means playing poorly and yet he was being run out of the gym.
On the par 5 seventh, Wu converted a 15-footer for eagle to get back to 2 down. He then went to the tee of the par-3 eighth and stuffed one to 5 feet.
He wasn’t done. Wu hit an absolute bomb on 9 and birdied that hole too. Eagle-birdie-birdie and Wu had tied the match in 15 mins.
This was special.
Photo Credit: Western Golf Association
The Back Nine
Cole Hammer responded to losing three holes in a row by winning the next two. While only 18 years old, he carries himself very well. Instead of panicking he battled.
I thought the match was going to turn as we reached the 13th green. Wu birdied 12 to get to one down and then hit a wedge to 4 feet on 13. Hammer got himself in trouble with a poor green-side bunker shot. He then dropped a 20-foot roller coaster of a putt over a slightly buried elephant (shout-out Rickie) and halved the hole.
Walking from 13 to 14, I noticed the grounds crew changing the pin on the 5th hole for the afternoon matches. A cool wrinkle that I was excited to see. The players in the final match would be playing different angles into pins than they played in the morning. It was also about this time that I noticed Hammer’s bag swag. It includes an Oakmont 3-wood cover, Azalea Am Champ driver cover, and Pine Valley towel. Pretty good start to logo bingo.
After squaring the match with a birdie on 14, Brandon Wu was in the driver’s seat on the par-5 sixteenth. He hit the green in two while Hammer had tree trouble and was facing 5 feet for par.
To paraphrase Seve, I miss I miss I make. Wu 3-putted and let Hammer stay tied for the day. You could definitely tell that Wu was kicking himself for that one.
There were easily over 100 people following the pair as we got to the final stretch. We had started with a modest 20 people but our crew had grown substantially. It was not the full attention that this match deserved but I was happy to see them nonetheless. Spectators included Stanford players Isaiah Salinda and Frank Huang as well as Oregon’s Edwin Yi. It did not feel like your typical amateur golf match.
After losing the 17th hole to be dormie, Brandon Wu got the ball to about 20 feet after his approach on the final hole. The putt on 18 was downhill, it was fast, and it was do-or-die.
He murdered it. I mean MURDERED it. This was a 20-foot putt and he easily hit it with 30 feet of speed. However, the putt caught the left side and rattled home. You can’t make a putt if you leave it short, especially when facing elimination. Wu had battled back from 3 down, 2 down, and dormie in the same match to force extra holes.
Cole Hammer and Brandon Wu chat as they play their 19th hole of the match
As the two approached their drives on the 20th hole, something was different. Wu was in the right trees and Hammer was in the fairway, nothing criminal about that. Hammer had made birdie from the right trees earlier in the day so I figured Wu would be fine. However, the pin was no longer on the left side of the green like it was in the morning. It was tucked against the right edge, having been changed for the final round already.
Wu was in jail. He had to try to hit a hero shot over the tree and came up short in some gnarly rough. Hammer knocked it to three feet.
I was awestruck the entire day. Watching two of the best amateurs in the world go back and forth was an incredible experience. They shot a best ball 59 in regulation with a combined 14 birdies and 1 eagle over 20 holes.
My biggest takeaway from the day was how special match play truly is. These two fed off each other, encouraged each other, battled, and played amazing golf for 4+ hours. It was truly a special match that I will not soon forget.