There’s a common refrain among golfers that the challenges, nuances and tricky kikuyu rough of Riviera Country Club identify the best players in the game, and it has a list of winners that back that up: Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson.
Of course, their victories came in four rounds of stroke play, when a golfer can overcome one bad round with three good ones.
Match play during this week’s U.S. Amateur at Riviera is a very different and much more fickle game. There are no second chances. An off day means a series of days off.
Collin Morikawa, the highest-ranked player in the field Thursday afternoon, was a case in point. The California junior from La Cañada-Flintridge was ousted by Chun An Yu of Taiwan and Arizona State, 2-up, at the end of a round-of-16 match filled with missed opportunities.
“I just didn’t make birdies,” said Morikawa, No. 6 in the world amateur ranking. “You’re not going to win with pars if you want to be out there on Sunday.”
The top 14 players in the world ranking started this tournament Monday. After two rounds of elimination play Thursday, two remained.
No. 7 Doug Ghim survived a 19-hole match against Pepperdine’s Sahith Theegala in the morning, then eliminated Joey Vrzich of El Cajon, 3 and 2, in the afternoon to reach Friday’s quarterfinals. And No. 13 Connor Syme of Scotland moved on with a 4-and-3 victory over 16-year-old Ricky Castillo of Yorba Linda in the morning and a 1-up win over Kristoffer Ventura of Norway in the afternoon. Syme chipped in for birdie on No. 18 for his afternoon win. Just before the shot, his caddie reminded him that he had done the same thing on No. 1.
“And he goes to me, ‘Well, you chipped in on one; why not just do it on 18 as well?” Syme said. So he did.
No. 10 Will Zalatoris of Plano, Texas., wasn’t so lucky. He lost in the round of 16 to Travis Smyth of Australia, who was 4-up after 10 holes and held on to win, 2 and 1.
“You might play really good, and you could versus an opponent that goes just one or two shots better, so it's really kind of luck a little bit,” Smyth said of the challenges of match play.
“You’ve still got to play a lot of good golf to beat these guys because everyone out here is really good.”
Dawson Armstrong of Brentwood, Tenn.; Mark Lawrence Jr. of Richmond, Va.; Doc Redman of Raleigh, N.C.; and Theo Humphrey of Greenwich, Conn., also reached the quarterfinals.
Hayden Wood, medalist after stroke play with an Amateur scoring record of 131, nine under par, was eliminated in the morning matches by Ventura, his Oklahoma State teammate, 3 and 2.
Morikawa, who was also eliminated in the round of 16 in the 2016 Amateur, let several chances slip through his hands in his match against Yu, a long hitter who has just finished his freshman year at Arizona State.
The 310-yard 10th hole drove that point home, and demonstrated the genius of Riviera, its alluring short par-four filled with danger. Yu’s tee shot flew well past and to the left of the green into deep rough. Morikawa faced a delicate pitch shot from about 45 yards to the extremely narrow green.
Yu declared his shot unplayable, took a penalty and then hit his third shot to within about 10 feet of the pin, lying three. Morikawa then tried a lob shot that dropped inches short of where it needed to and rolled back into a bunker. He put his next shot in the bunker behind the green, then made an eight-foot putt for bogey to halve the hole.
He was unable to take a lead any time in the match and now finds himself hoping to be named to the Walker Cup team at the end of the week.
“I don’t think my chances are as I would like them,” he said. “It would mean everything in the world.”
Those remaining in the field are simply trying to remain one notch better than whomever they’re playing and get to Sunday’s 36-hole final.
“I mean, you’re out there to win every game,” Syme said. “You’re trying to win every match.”