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Gutsy Wins and Crushing Losses at the U.S. Amateur

Thursday’s doubleheader pushed players—and their loved ones—to the breaking point

By Alan Shipnuck
August 17, 2023

DENVER—To understand the exquisite drama and occasional cruelty of the U.S. Amateur, all you had to do was see Karen Ford’s face on Thursday evening at Cherry Hills Country Club. Ford is the mother of identical twins Maxwell and David, though they are “mirror twins,” so Maxwell is left-handed and David a righty. Each won his second-round round match on Thursday to advance to that afternoon’s Sweet 16. One more victory apiece by the Ford boys and they were fated to meet in the quarterfinals, a momentous matchup that would have garnered national attention.

But Maxwell ran into a red-hot Parker Bell and lost 5 and 4. Throughout junior golf, whenever one brother finished before the other at a tournament he would race back out to the course to cheer for his twin. After Maxwell’s loss, he joined his brother’s match on the 8th hole, which David won with a birdie to go 1 up on Ben James, a stylish player who won the 2023 Phil Mickelson Outstanding Freshman Award at Virginia. Maxwell was still wearing his spikes and had his yardage guide in his pocket. “We’re used to looking for each other in the crowd,” says David. “I was happy to see him. At least I knew one person was cheering for me.”

Don’t forget Mom. She tried to maintain her equanimity during David’s rollercoaster match, which through 15 holes featured four lead changes. When her son won the 16th to go 1 up, Karen let out an audible sigh. “It would be nice to get one win,” she said with a tight smile.

David was still 1 up playing the brutal 18th hole. He cautiously hit a 3-iron off the tee, but the wind switched and he wound up one step into the thickest rough on the course. James won the hole with a gritty par and then on the first extra hole stuffed a wedge for a walk-off birdie. Maxwell was the first person to console David, and they trudged back to the clubhouse side-by-side. It was a poignant sight, but James (below) was understandably ebullient. “It’s a dream, like it doesn’t even happen in a dream. It was unbelievable what happened. I’ve never been 1 down, two to play, having a four-footer to advance it to a playoff hole and then sticking a wedge from 130 to three feet and cashing that in. I never thought I could do that. It just keeps giving me self-belief that I can hold my head up high and I can do some incredible things that I didn’t even think I could do.”

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Meanwhile, Nick Dunlap, still riding high from taking out top-ranked Gordon Sargent in the first round, oozed self-belief while cruising to two wins in Thursday’s doubleheader. A sophomore at Alabama and the 2021 U.S. Junior Amateur, Dunlap won the Northeast Amateur and the North & South earlier this summer. With a simple, repeatable swing, he makes the game look, and sound, easy.  “I struck it really solid, and that’s kind of my goal on a windy day like today,” Dunlap said. “If you hit it in the middle, the ball is not going to move too much.”

Dunlap already has the vibe of a PGA Tour pro, which appears to be his destiny. Neal Shipley (top, pink shirt), a grad student at Ohio State, carries himself more like The Dude from The Big Lebowski. His luxurious mane of hair has been a talking point throughout the week; after Dan Hicks waxed about the luscious locks on Golf Channel during Shipley’s victory in the Sweet 16, the man himself said, “To keep the momentum going, we’re going to have to condition [the hair] tonight and get some work in on that part of the game so we’re ready for tomorrow morning.” Shipley’s jovial vibe is as much of an advantage as his booming tee shots. He says, “Getting to the U.S. Amateur is so difficult. Competitive golf in itself can be so difficult and has its up and downs. I just try and enjoy it as much as possible, just kind of soaking it all in and having a fun time.”

In the quarterfinals, Shipley will face Andi Xu, a University of San Diego senior by way of China. In the Sweet 16, Xu was 4 up with five holes to play but Connor Gaunt, a grad student at LSU, rallied to force the match to the 18th hole. From 240 yards out Xu ripped a gorgeous 5-iron that never left the flag, allowing him to close out a 2-up victory. At the end of a long, grueling day, Xu said, “I was mentally just out of it, honestly, for the last few holes. I tried really hard to focus. My mind is kind of going blank right now. Probably need to nap a little bit. I just really tried to focus in on [the approach shot at 18] and tell myself, You’ve just got to hit this one.”

And so he did. Like Xu, the 123rd U.S. Amateur rolls on.

The USGA is a partner to the Fire Pit Collective but does not have editorial oversight.

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