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It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

During the U.S. Amateur quarterfinals, closing out matches was never easy on Cherry Hills’s brutal 18th hole

By Alan Shipnuck
August 18, 2023

DENVER—The drivable par-4 1st hole at Cherry Hills Country Club gets all the love, thanks to Arnold Palmer’s heroics at the 1960 U.S. Open, but number 18 is more emblematic of the course’s relentlessness. The right side of the 487-yard par-4 is framed by the thickest rough on the property, while the skinny, serpentine fairway cants toward a lake. The steeply elevated green is fronted by deep bunkers and the clubhouse is only a few steps beyond the putting surface, leading to a loud, lively gallery. At the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open, Lorena Ochoa stepped to the18th tee with the national championship in her grasp but made a ghastly 8 to fall by the wayside. Years later, she said, “I don’t like to use the word hate but I hate that hole. I have nightmares about that hole.”

Number 18 defined Friday’s quarterfinals at the 123rd U.S. Amateur. The first match of the day was all-square arriving at the finishing hole. It had been a spirited tussle between Jackson Koivun, the top-ranked junior in the country and soon-to-be freshman at Auburn, and Nick Dunlap, a bomber with soft hands who has been the best amateur in the country this summer. With Koivun doomed to a bogey, Dunlap faced a 4-foot par putt to win the match. The Alabama sophomore carries himself with supreme confidence, but his nerve deserted him at this crucial moment and he bricked the putt. “Honestly, man, it’s just so hard to win in this atmosphere, especially like the amount of people that are out here,” Dunlap said afterward. “I know it’s hard to win. It’s hard to win for him, it’s hard to win for me, and just give all you got. Pressure is difficult. I think you can get overwhelmed by the situation quickly if you allow yourself to. At the end of the day, it’s still golf. You still have to stick to your game plan.”

Indeed, Dunlap stepped to Arnie’s favorite hole and, without hesitation, ripped a driver just wide of the putting surface. Then he slammed in a 20-footer for birdie that propelled him into Saturday’s semifinals.

The next match to reach the 18th hole was a telenovela between Parker Bell (above), an unheralded sophomore from Florida, and Ben James, who is sixth in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and the winner of the 2023 Phil Mickelson Award as the top freshman in the country for Virginia. Bell was 2 up with three holes to play but James went birdie-eagle to square the match stepping to the fraught 18th tee. A comedy of errors ensued, and eventually James faced a 3-foot putt for bogey to punch his ticket to the semifinals. James’s putter had been on fire for most of the match but the 18th green is the ultimate stage, and he missed the putt, a crushing turn of events that Bell called, “new life.” He added, “I’m sure he was pretty boggled by that. The momentum kind of swung to my side.” Indeed, he birdied the first extra hole to close out the match.

John Marshall Butler, of Auburn, advanced by cooling off one of the hottest players in the field, Oregon’s Jose Islas, a 3-and-2 win that didn’t feel that close. Butler has cut a distinct figure at the Amateur with his enthusiastic celebrations, which include the occasional bellowing, “Boom, baby!” He says, “I love it. I feel like it brings out the best in my game. I’m just like a very, very competitive person. Yeah, the ‘boom, baby’ just comes out sometimes, and it’s a little uncalled for for sure, but I just want it so bad. I’ve just worked so hard for this.”

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The final semifinalist will be Neal Shipley (above), a grad student at Ohio State. Tied through 14 holes versus Andi Xu, Shipley birdied two of the next three holes to take the match 2 and 1. Asked about his strong finishing kick, Shipley said, “I really didn’t want to let the match go to 18.”

Can you blame him?

The USGA is a partner to the Fire Pit but has no editorial oversight.

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