OAKMONT, Pa. — An opening 64 thrust Greensburg native Mark Goetz into the top echelon of the U.S. Amateur’s stroke-play qualifying leaderboard on Monday, but the most dangerous half still awaited.
Longue Vue Club in Verona, where Goetz completed his first round, played over five strokes easier than its counterpart, Oakmont Country Club in Round 1.
With a bout with Oakmont the next day, on Goetz’s 23rd birthday nonetheless, would the local star handle the pressure on Pittsburgh’s famed track?
While his rain-interrupted round wrapped up on Wednesday morning, Goetz got more than he could’ve possibly wished for on the big 2-3.
He posted a 2-under 68, tying the best score so far at Oakmont this tournament, putting him at a tournament-best 8 under par going into the match-play bracket. He’ll have the honor of being the bracket’s No. 1 seed when match play begins Wednesday afternoon, weather permitting.
“I really just wanted to make match play,” said Goetz, who’s making his second U.S. Am appearance. “Once I got into the event that was really the next step. So I just played solid, man.”
Only the University of Texas’ Travis Vick could match Goetz’s 68, which he said was his best score ever at Oakmont in more than a dozen rounds. A pending fifth-year senior at West Virginia University, Goetz’s 8-under total was two better than totals posted by Stanford’s Michael Thorbjornsen — arguably the hottest amateur golfer in the nation coming into this week — and Harvard’s Brian Ma.
The tournament resets now, with only the top 64 making it to match play, which will be held exclusively at Oakmont over the next four days. Still, earning medalist honors does instill additional confidence, Goetz said, especially when it comes to these treacherous green complexes.
“I think my speed on these greens has been really good,” Goetz said. “Short game has been great. We’ve done a really good job getting myself around this place without getting in too many bad spots, or if we did, getting out of it quick and back in position.”
Monday’s busy start to the U.S. Amateur saw players struggling to hold the dry, Oakmont greens in the blazing heat. Tuesday began a different weather pattern, one that will almost certainly give the USGA fits as it attempts to complete the tournament on schedule.
Distant thunder could be heard at times throughout the morning Tuesday, but it didn’t become enough of a presence for a weather stoppage until just after 1:30 p.m. Players fled to the clubhouse for shelter in what amounted to a nearly four hour delay.
Trent Phillips, a rising senior at the University of Georgia and the defending Sunnehanna Am champ, also tamed the beasts of Oakmont on Tuesday, posting a 1-under 69. He navigated the dangerous greens unfazed, recording just one bogey in his first 15 holes.
After dropping a shot at the par-3 16th, Phillips went for the green on the short par-4 17th, missing left and down a hill. Faced with a difficult chip, he risked the possibility of flirting with the steep decline to a devastating bunker in front of the flag. Regardless, he flopped one on the surface with maximum precision, setting up an easy 4-foot birdie putt which he would convert.
“I like this golf course, I like the fact that you gotta be a grinder,” he said. “That’s the name of my game and I like to grind and no, I don’t hit every shot perfectly like a lot of these other guys. But I feel like when it comes to grinding, I’m good at getting in the hole in the least amount of strokes possible, even when I’m not in position.”
Phillips looked like the story of the day, but Goetz took the spotlight deep into the evening. Having only played two holes before the rain delay hit, he got Oakmont in the most favorable conditions so far. It played just three shots harder than Longue Vue in Round 2, compared to five in Round 1.
“Today that golf course changed quite a bit from the morning to the afternoon with some of that rain,” he said when the USGA suspended Tuesday’s round for darkness. “It was definitely an advantage being out here after all that rain came through, but it was a long day, man. I mean, you know, sitting there for quite a while before you go out.”
Goetz quietly lurked on his first nine holes, nabbing a birdie on the short par-4 13th to make the turn in 34. He birdied holes 1 and 2 shortly after, and a bogey at 5 put him back to 2 under for the day. He’d par out the rest of the way.
He’s played Oakmont a number of times the past few years, but he turned to one of his worst memories here as the biggest learning experience. Goetz had a six-shot lead on the 13th tee of the 2018 West Penn Open, before he proceeded to make a series of big mistakes that cost him the title.
The next day, he played with Sean Knapp, a Pittsburgh golf legend that made this year’s field at the age of 59. He said Knapp gave him a bit of advice that still helps him three years later: “Run because you’re scared.”
“I was like ‘What? What does that mean?” Goetz said. “He was like, ‘if you have a two-shot lead, man, make it three. Just keep going.’ He’s like, it’s cliche, but if you run because you’re scared you might get a bad break here or there, you’re always going to have a couple more shots in the back pocket that you can play with.”
Goetz played the best golf of anyone in the 312-player field for stroke play, and if he can keep his game up in the match-play bracket, it might be time for his competitors to run in fear.
While Goetz outpaced the pack in stroke play, none of the nine other western Pennsylvanians in the field could make the cut.
Notables Sean Knapp and Palmer Jackson missed out by several strokes on Tuesday at Oakmont, but Moon Township’s Ian Bangor and Wexford’s Jimmy Meyers had outside chances to make the 3-over cut, as they finished at Longue Vue on Wednesday morning.
Peters Township grad Jake Sollon also had a chance at match play, although he finished at Oakmont. Nevertheless, he hung tough with a 2-over 72 on the tougher of the two tracks. After playing four years at Rider University and a fifth year at defending NCAA champion Oregon, he plans to turn pro.
The Penn State junior Meyers couldn’t do better than even-par 70 at Longue Vue, leaving him at 4 over for the tournament, while the 29-year-old Bangor dropped three shots over his final eight holes to finish at 7 over.
“I usually play pretty well here,” said Bangor, who played his college golf at Carnegie Mellon. “I thought I played really well at Oakmont, but in general I didn’t putt well enough. Thought I hit pretty good putts at Longue Vue, but I can’t think of one that went in, outside of four or five feet. When you’re playing against this competitive of a field, you have to make a few putts.”
Bangor, who works Downtown at Federated, spoke to the challenge of taking on a field chock full of full-time Division I college golfers.
“I think sometimes when I was younger, it almost burned me out,” “Now, it’s a nice break when you play golf. I think it can be a good balance, but maybe it can be a disadvantage. I think not playing as many tournaments (can hurt). When you play a bunch of tournaments, it’s not as big of a deal. If you’re only playing a couple of tournaments per year, you can hype yourself up too much.”
Matt Gajtka contributed to this report. Keep up to date on the U.S. Amateur all week on our liveblog!