OAKMONT, Pa. — You have to be ready for emotional swings in match play, especially in a 36-hole championship showdown.
There’s just too many holes to expect a smooth ride all the way through, so when James Piot found himself down three holes at the turn of Sunday’s second 18, he still had reason to stay fully engaged in the task at hand.
At least, generally speaking.
After all, just this week alone he’d survived 36 holes of stroke play, four rain delays and five rounds of match play on one of the most difficult courses in the world. Digging deeper, despite coming out of a powerhouse program at Detroit Catholic Central, he’d been late to the college recruiting scramble, eventually deciding to stay close to home at Michigan State.
Four years later, he’s heading back to East Lansing for one more season with a lovely conversation piece in tow: The Havemeyer Trophy.
That is, if he can grasp what he just accomplished.
“I was just trying to see if it was real or not,” Piot said 15 minutes after beating North Carolina junior Austin Greaser, 2 and 1, Sunday at Oakmont Country Club in the final of the 121st U.S. Amateur.
“I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I honestly was like, ‘Did I just win the U.S. Am?’ ”
Lifted by a remarkably steady final stretch, the 22-year-old Piot won five of the last eight holes to reverse a long day of golf that appeared to be building toward the opposite result.
Piot, who led 1 up after a sloppy opening 18 holes for both finalists, outlasted Greaser’s powerful game with an all-around exhibition of golf. Despite being consistently 20-30 yards behind his opponent off the tee and at least a club shorter throughout the bag, Piot stayed within range long enough to strike back.
When he did, he hardly missed a shot until he was shaking Greaser’s hand on the sun-splashed 17th green.
“There were some tight swings on the front nine or the second 18,” Piot said. “Right misses is usually a tendency of mine when the clubs get a little up and the legs fire too fast.
“I just slowed down the pre-shot routine a touch. I probably think you guys didn’t notice that, but it was just reminding myself to keep the left shoulder rotating. That’s usually my go-to swing thought, and I got it done on the back nine.”
Golf is an individual sport in name only, and that was especially the case here. Not only did Piot boast a sizable cheering section, highlighted by his caddy/MSU assistant coach Dan Ellis, he also made history as the first Michigander to ever hoist the Havemeyer.
Strike one for cold-weather golfers everywhere.
“Growing up, you’ve got the wintertime and you don’t get the full season,” he said. “Kids are kinda looked past as far as the college recruiting process goes. There’s a lot of talent that does come out of Michigan but very few get the opportunity to play in the south.
“That kinda put a chip on my shoulder growing up. I feel like not a lot of kids get that, and they get beaten down and the ‘I don’t belong’ kinda thing. But I just put a chip on my shoulder and said ‘I’ll keep working harder.’ I know when the weather is good, I’ve gotta maximize it.”
And for a guy who had to qualify for this championship, playing at a school not traditionally known for golf, maybe some of that mental fortitude helped in the moments that changed this match.
“It validates where I ended up and feels like there was a purpose to going to Michigan State,” Piot said. “It’s kind of nice to show the guys out there that don’t go to the big time school that you can still do it.
“Coming from Michigan, it’s a phenomenal feeling being able to grind from a guy who wasn’t highly-sought-after to U.S. Am champ.”
Although Greaser authored the flashiest highlight of the morning 18, holing out from a greenside bunker on the fifth hole, there were signs early that he might not be on his way to victory. He lipped out three par putts in the opening round and three-putted from 25 feet on the 18th to head into the afternoon behind.
“It’s Oakmont,” he said. “It’s hard. You can be 20 feet away and barely able to get it next to the hole. So fast or not, just you still got to execute.”
But the 20-year-old native of suburban Dayton looked the superior player after lunch, winning holes 1, 2 and 4 with a par and two birdies. Meanwhile, Piot hit just two of seven fairways on the outward nine, capped by a pull into the penalty area left of 9 and a resulting bogey.
At that point, chances for a Spartan victory appeared slim, but a solid drive and a dart of a 9-iron on 10 led to a brush-in birdie and a chance to take a breath.
“I smoked that drive and he still hit his 3-wood by me, by the way,” Piot said with a smile curling his lips. “I hit that as good as I could. Was like, ‘Man, that was a good-feeling swing. Let’s repeat that motion.’ It kind of snowballed from there.”
Greaser’s putting touch faltered on 11, as both had about 10 feet downhill for birdie, but the Tar Heel scooted his first putt well past the hole and took an unforced bogey. Piot said he knew from experience that it’s “uncomfortable” trying to close out a lead at Oakmont, so he took heart in the art of hanging around.
“I felt like he didn’t make a lot of birdies but he just didn’t do a lot wrong,” Greaser said of Piot. “He just kind of plotted his way around the golf course, got up and down when he needed to, made a couple putts, a lot of pars, and unfortunately I was probably making more bogeys today than I had all week.”
Then came what seemed to be the most pivotal hole. Both men hit terrific drives on the 667-yard par-5 12th, although with Greaser still well past Piot. While Piot laid up short of the cross bunker, knowing he had no shot, Greaser pulled a long iron into the sand.
Piot’s pitch from the left rough settled onto the back shelf of a treacherous green; Greaser could only manage to get his bunker pitch onto the front edge. The distance advantage flipped in a matter of minutes, with Greaser three-putting to cough up the lead for good.
“I just felt like from there all the momentum was on my side,” Piot said. “I had a lot of people out here who happened to be Michigan State or fans of me somehow, someway. The crowd got going, and it just felt right from there.”
Greaser proceeded to miss the par-3 13th green, making bogey, but he had one more push. Following Piot’s best drive of the day, Greaser again smashed one on the reachable par-4 14th, leaving him 20 feet for birdie after a so-so pitch. He drained it on top of Piot’s tap-in birdie, keeping the margin at one hole.
But the 500-yard par-4 15th confirmed that Piot’s swing was more solid in that setting sun. Fairway, check. Green, check.
For Greaser, there was a cut-that-didn’t-cut drive into the mini-Church Pews, a pitch out, and a pitch on that wasn’t close enough for a reasonable shot at par.
“I found some magic on 14 to make one to stay in it a little bit more,” Greaser said. “Just didn’t execute coming down the stretch. I think it’s pretty obvious. He won four holes in a row there and kind of tides changed, and that’s how it goes.”
The tricky uphill 313-yard par-4 17th nearly provided another signature momentum switch, as Piot splashed from one greenside bunker to the other, forcing him to scramble for par one last time. Greaser’s bunker play was better, but after Piot sunk a lengthy putt to a lusty cheer from Sparty Nation, Greaser couldn’t match from half that distance.
From there it was handshake time, with the backing serenade coming from dozens of spectators in Michigan State green and white, including a handful from the men’s team and a few more from the women’s team.
Piot’s fifth college season is on the doorstep, not that he needs an excuse to keep those clubs in his hands, rain or shine. The next challenge is following up a season in which he set the school record for scoring average, made the all-Big Ten first team and was named an honorable mention All-American.
“If there’s not snow on the ground,” he said, “I’ll be out there.”