This week’s Illinois Open will be hard-pressed to duplicate the drama provided in the Western Amateur, which concluded on Saturday with one of the most dramatic championship matches in the event’s 116-year history.
Cole Hammer, an incoming freshman at the University of Texas, was 4-up on Alabama senior-to-be Davis Riley with eight holes to play at Sunset Ridge Country Club, in Northfield. One of the most prestigious titles in amateur golf wasn’t assured for Hammer, however, until Riley’s final putt from the fringe of the 18th green slipped past the cup.
The win enabled Hammer to join the ranks of golfing greats Chick Evans, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods as Western Amateur winners. Woods and Hammer are among the five players to win the tournament as 18-year olds.
Though the final was filled with drama, the star of the show all week was Hammer. He set the Sunset Ridge course record with a 10-under-par 61 and was co-medalist with a tournament record 23-under-par 261 in the 72-hole stroke play-qualifying portion of the most grueling competition in golf.
All the stroke play heroics did was get Hammer in the Sweet 16 for the two-day match play portion that decided the overall champion. Two of Hammer’s four matches went to extra holes and all reached the 18th green. He got through them with the help of his mother Allison, who made a rare tournament appearance as his caddy.
By comparison Riley played 11 less holes in his first three matches than Hammer did, but the champion showed no ill effects from the very physical ordeal that included his last two matches being played in 90-degree plus heat.
“I was fine, and to win with my mom on the bag meant the world to me,’’ said Hammer. “I had adrenalin going just because it was the finals of the Western Am, and there’s no bigger championship in amateur golf.’’
He may change his tune in tune weeks. Both Hammer and Riley are qualifiers for the U.S. Amateur at California’s famed Pebble Beach before they join their college teams.
Hammer, who was the third-youngest qualifier for the U.S. Open when he made it in 2016, had an especially long day on Saturday. His morning semifinal match with Californian Brandon Wu went 20 holes before Wu cracked, conceding a five-foot putt and the match to Hammer on the second extra hole after his own play deteriorated.
Riley, meanwhile, led all the way in his 4 and 2 semifinal win over Tyler Strafaci, of Davie, FL. Riley was cooling off in the clubhouse for 40 minutes before Hammer finished off Wu.
A 60-foot eagle putt at No. 7 was the highlight of Hammer’s fast start in the championship match. He got to 4-up before Ralston won Nos. 11, 12 and 16 to get to 1-down with two holes left. They both failed to connect on good birdie opportunities at the par-3 17th and both missed birdie chances from almost the identical spot at the 18th while the walking gallery of several hundred fans roared with every shot.
All of Hammer’s matches were tough ones. He advanced to the final day of the Western with a 2-up win over Georgian Spencer Ralston in Friday’s quarterfinals. Ralston had come from 2-down after nine holes to eliminate the only local player to reach the Sweet 16, Highwood’s Patrick Flavin, 3 and 2.
Flavin makes his professional debut on Monday when he begins defense of his Illinois Open title. He has a 9:20 tee time at Ravinia Green in Riverwoods and is paired with Brandon Holtz, the former Illinois State basketball player who was last year’s runner-up, and 2016 Illinois Open champion Carlos Sainz Jr.
“The Illinois Open is a little different than the Western Amateur,’’ said Flavin. “The Western has the best field in amateur golf but you have to play well on two courses in the Illinois Open. I’m really looking forward to that. It was such a big game-changer for me last year, winning my first pro event as an amateur.’’
Flavin and his partners have a 2:10 p.m. tee time at The Glen Club in Glenview on Tuesday before the 156 starters are whittled to the low 50 and ties for Wednesday’s final round at The Glen.