OAKMONT, Pa. — Golf can give you the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
West Virginia University fifth year and Greensburg native Mark Goetz found that out the difficult way, experiencing polar opposite results within 24 hours at the U.S. Amateur.
Goetz finished up a 2-under 68 at Oakmont Country Club on Wednesday morning, the best score posted at the course of the week. It put him at 8 under for the tournament, also the best combined score of the two preliminary rounds, earning him stroke-play medalist honors on his 23rd birthday.
For a short time, Goetz had the best story going at the world’s premier amateur golf event. Local kid, playing a course he has so much history with, blowing past expectations to best a 312-player field in the tournament’s qualifying stretch. Not bad for a player coming off his first individual NCAA victory in his fourth season at WVU.
But the Cinderella story came to a crashing halt in Thursday’s round of 64 matchplay.
Goetz gained a 3-up lead on Northwestern’s David Nyfjall through 14 holes of action, but the Swedish-born Wildcat stormed back, winning the final four holes to steal the victory from Goetz’s grasp.
It was an eerie sense of deja vu for the Kiski School alum, as he lost a 6-shot lead at Oakmont over the final few holes of the 2018 West Penn Open.
“I’ve had leads here before,” he said. “We know how that goes, right?”
For a while it looked like the comeback story would belong to Goetz. He and Nyfjall sat in a tie through four holes going into Thursday morning’s restart. Storms pushed Wednesday’s start to the match-play bracket back about four hours, meaning only one pair of players finished their match before darkness suspended play for the night.
Nyfjall got the first advantage of the day, recording par on the par-3 6th to go 1 up, but Goetz tied it back up with a birdie on the par-4 10th. The Mountaineer went on a tear from there, birdieing holes 12, 13 and 14 to take a commanding 3-up lead onto the 15th tee.
“I played great today,” Goetz said. “I hit it really solid. I knew that stretch from like 10 to 15 was going to be pretty important.”
With a huge local crowd following him, things looked like they were going perfectly to plan. But like golfers of any level know, a round can flip in an instant.
Despite looking at a mid-range birdie putt for the win on 15, Goetz three-putted to give a hole back, then hit his tee shot on the par-3 16th in the bunker. He couldn’t save par there, tightening the match to 1 up with two holes remaining.
Nyfjall found the greenside bunker on the short par-4 17th, and Goetz’s drive stopped just short of it. With little green to work with and hitting off a downslope in the second cut, Goetz attempted to flop one near the pin, but came up short and watched the ball roll into the bunker.
“It was kind of a weird lie, but I didn’t do a great job with that one,” Goetz said. “Definitely going back, I wish I would’ve had that one back.”
His opponent made par, and suddenly Goetz’s lead disappeared heading to the 18th tee. Nyfjall hit the middle of the fairway, but Goetz’s ball flew into the fairway bunker, forcing him to punch one back onto the green stuff.
“I tried to hold it up into the wind and hit it great,” Goetz said. “Just kind of hung it out to the right. Those two (bunkers) are dead over there.”
A solid pitch left Goetz an outside chance to save par, but he never got the opportunity. Nyfjall, who won a 12-player playoff on Wednesday to get into match play, sank a distant birdie putt on the 18th green to advance.
While it was an upset in the context of the tournament, over the past five years, higher seeds in the Round of 64 have just a .513 winning percentage. Still, per golf statistician Justin Ray, Nyfjall had just a 3 percent chance to win on the 15th tee.
Despite the crushing fashion of his defeat, Goetz seemed in relatively good spirits after the loss. He expressed appreciation for getting a chance to participate in a U.S. Amateur at a Western Pennsylvania location in the first place, calling everything beyond that “icing on the cake”
“It was a great week, man.” Goetz said, noting the group of rooters who made the half-hour trip from his home country club in Greensburg. “It was a lot of fun. I had a big Hannastown (CC) crowd following me. That was awesome.”
Goetz put a positive spin on his misfortunes, focusing instead on testing himself against the world’s best amateurs at this historic location.
“I think honestly it reassures to me that this is my favorite place on the planet now,” he said. “This place is awesome. I don’t know what I’m going to take away from the play this week.
“We’ll see. Probably going to go to the club, hang out later today, and it will take a while to sink in for sure.”
Matt Gajtka contributed to this report. To follow the championship at large, visit our U.S. Amateur liveblog!