ROLAND, Ark. — A cooperative group of golfers tossed a softball to a columnist seeking an angle on the final day of the stroke-play portion of the Western Amateur.
Starting Friday one shot out of the top 16, Kramer Hickok of Texas crafted a four-under-par 68. Meanwhile, Aussie Taylor Macdonald, Talor Gooch of Oklahoma State, and Jack Perry of Northwestern — each at six-under-par through three rounds — were among those who failed to break par in the fourth round.
As a result, five players wound up in a playoff for the final four spots in the 16-man field that begins match play today at The Alotian Club and documenting competition that is consolidated into a fivesome is a breeze. Cory Whitsett, the No. 1 amateur in the world who had his chances on his 71st and 72nd hole, was eliminated with bogey-bogey on No. 18, including a lip-out from 12 feet the first time around and a miss from much closer the next time.
At most golf tournaments, the approach is to roll the dice and pick a group. I’ve abandoned a threesome that has made a mess of the first six holes or so at The Masters and backtracked in search of a better storyline. It’s hit and miss because the noteworthy happenings often occur a mile or more apart.
Even on Sunday at Augusta, tracking a single pairing is risky. For good reason, media members retreat to the TV to watch the back nine.
Scanning the 54-hole scores in the Western Amateur, a playoff appeared inevitable with exactly 16 players at 210 or better — including eight on the number, eight more at 211, and four more at 212. At mid-morning on Friday, there were seven players tied for 16th. Shortly after noon, exactly 16 were at minus six or better. An hour later, five players were tied at minus five for the last spot. Watching the cutline fluctuate was fascinating.
No matter whether a player teed off on No. 1 or No. 10, the scoring was ripe for change since the next-to-last hole was either No. 8 or No. 17 — par fives that played as the two easiest holes on the course.
Although Whitsett, Sean Dale, Gooch, Beau Hossler, and Keith Mitchell have navigated big moments before, there is a gut-tightening that goes along with the idea that one mistake can wipe out 72 holes of solid golf and that the Sweet Sixteen is littered with golf’s greats, including 29 who have won 75 major championships.
The first time they teed it up on the 505-yard 18th, one struck a chip so tentatively that it finished 40 feet from the hole. Hossler and Gooch parred the first time around although Hossler had to make an 8-footer for a two putt.
The five-way playoff paled beside the gangsome that took to the course early on the third day of the 1988 U.S. Amateur in Virginia. The day before, my favorite golfer was told by a USGA official that he was in the 64-man match-play field with a par on his 36th hole and in a playoff with a bogey. The 6-foot par putt was dead center and he slept in while Jay Fox, a competitor at the time and now the executive director of the Arkansas State Golf Association, gave in to some heavy-handed persuasion and joined me for the playoff.
By the time we found the action deep on the back nine, the USGA record of 31 players competing for eight spots had been reduced to 10 or so, all in one group. We saw a shank, a top, and at least one three-putt.
Western Amateur medalist Patrick Rodgers of Stanford is forewarned. David Lind won the last spot that day in ‘88 and, hours later, eliminated medalist Tom McKnight. Only 10 times in the last 30 years has the Western medalist taken home the trophy.