The Moment Arrives at the U.S. Amateur

The Moment Arrives at the U.S. Amateur

During the non-stop first round of match play, wins and losses were often decided by which player came through in the clutch

By Alan Shipnuck
August 16, 2023

DENVER—Match play is a series of moments. Who wins and loses does not necessarily reflect the totality of the round; the victor is often the player who seizes the moment. U.S. Amateur Wednesday is the quintessence of match play drama, a dawn-to-dusk slate of 32 first round matchups. Eleven matches were decided on the 18th hole and three went to sudden death. The day was defined by wild momentum swings, monumental putts, clutch shotmaking and plenty of heartbreak. 

A marquee tilt between Preston Summerhays and Sampson Zheng was a case study in match play momentum. Summerhays, the 2019 U.S. Junior champ who is a sophomore at Arizona State, is part of golf’s first family: son of Boyd (swing coach to Tony Finau and Talor Gooch); nephew of Daniel, a PGA Tour player, and Carrie, an LPGA dreamer; great nephew of Bruce, a Senior Tour stud. Zheng, a Cal Bear by way to Tianjin, China, was a co-medalist during stroke play. He won the first two holes but Summerhays battled back to square the match on number 10. They halved the next five holes, and then on 16 Summerhays made a bending 40-footer for birdie. “It felt like the first time all day I was up in the match,” he says, “even though he still had a putt.”

This was the moment.

Zheng stepped up and drilled his own 25-footer, a body blow that halved the hole. He closed out Summerhays on 18. Asked what the putt on 16 gave him, Zheng said, “A lot of boost. I mean, it’s kind of throwing a jab back at him, so that was really good… Just to be able to pull shots off when it matters, like when you need to, that’s what we practice for.”

Summerhays was left to ponder what might have been. “As a competitor, it sucks,” he says. What’s next for him?

“Class at 9 a.m. tomorrow.”

Ugh. Which class?

“I’m not sure. It’s Arizona State, you know?”

Jose Islas, a junior at Oregon who earlier this year beat the pros at the El Campanario Classic in his native Mexico, had his own defining moment in his soap opera versus Preston Stout. Two-down with four holes to play, Islas battled back to force sudden death. He is maybe 5’9 and slender but generates terrifying clubbed speed. Islas stepped to Cherry Hill’s famous first hole, a 340-yard par-4, a ripped a drive pin-high…with a 3-wood. (Arnie smiles wanly from the grave.) Pars halved the hole. On the third extra hole, Islas had a 3-footer to close out the match…and missed badly. “I got tense,” he says. Walking to the next tee, Islas says, “I was angry. I wanted another chance. I kept telling myself, You’re a great putter, don’t stop believing in yourself.” On Cherry Hills’s tough 4th hole, Islas faced a 12-footer to save par with Stout still to face his own 5-foot par putt. 

The moment had arrived for Islas. 

“I knew I would make it,” he says. Must be a life-affirming feeling. He gutted the putt, Stout missed and the match was over.

The first round had plenty of other heroes. Nick Dunlap, the 2021 U.S. Junior Amateur champion, dusted Gordon Sargent, the number one player in the World Amateur Ranking. “I think this was a match that a lot of people wanted to see,” said Dunlap, a sophomore at Oregon who captured the Northeast Amateur and the North & South earlier this summer. 


“Obviously he’s the number one player in the world for a reason. Wasn’t expecting any gifts from him. Just kind of throwing punches all day long and see who could withstand them at the end.”

Identical twins David and Maxwell Ford, of Peachtree Corners, Ga., both advanced with lopsided victories. Well, they’re not exactly identical: David plays left-handed and Maxwell is a righty. And they’re actually triplets, along with sister Abigail. So far in they careers, David has had a little more success: He is fourth in the WAGR and a member of the Team USA for the upcoming Walker Cup Match at St. Andrews, Scotland. This fall, Maxwell (#53) will join him at the University of North Carolina after having played two years at Georgie. Should the Fords keep winning, they will square off in Friday’s quarterfinals.

The most charming story from the qualifying rounds is still going, as 16 year-old Blades Brown beat Benton Weinberg1-up, thanks to a gutsy birdie on the 17th hole. Large crowds and an impressive build-out have made Cherry Hills feel big-time, and Brown admitted he had to work hard not to think about the magnitude of the moment. “I was hitting the ball really, really good,” he said. “I was just trying to get in the mindset of, OK, it’s just me and the golf course. I was doing really good. I may have gotten tired.” Speaking for all the victors on an action-packed day, he added, “I probably need to go take a nap.”

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

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