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Big Cat Runs Wild: ‘Fire’ Start Fuels Schmidt’s West Penn Am Repeat

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Connor Schmidt (center) tees off on the first hole Tuesday morning at Allegheny Country Club. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

SEWICKLEY HEIGHTS, Pa. — There was no shortage of contenders for the 120th Western Pennsylvania Amateur Championship, but the W.C. Fownes Jr. Trophy is staying right where it’s been living for the past 13 months.

Buoyed by a dazzling front-nine 30 that featured six birdies — including four in a row — Drexel University senior Connor Schmidt shot a 2-under 68 in Tuesday’s final round at Allegheny Country Club to repeat as West Penn Am titleist.

“I felt pretty confident coming into the week, like I was clicking on all cylinders,” Schmidt said. “It’s a good feeling in golf. That’s rare.”

Schmidt sure looked like a man in full control of his game this week. After starting with a 4-under 66 on Monday that he felt could’ve been a little lower, he put his complete set of skills on display to overpower Allegheny CC’s short-ish front nine on his second go-around Tuesday.

Of his six birdies in the final round, three were of the textbook fairway-green-putt variety, two were up-and-down numbers and one was a simple two-putt on the par-5 sixth. He left another one just short in the jaws on No. 8 and burned the edge on No. 9.

The only blemish was a three-putt from above the hole on the par-3 third. Even there, his long-iron tee shot was solid from 220 yards.

“I’ve had hot stretches in the past,” Schmidt said, “but to start like that with the lead I had, I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.

“I have those fire moments when I’m lights out. I don’t try to think about what I’m doing too much and get in that zone. When you’re playing well and everything’s going right, the game seems so easy. Other than that three-putt, I was basically playing perfect golf.”

Schmidt’s 6-under total for the shortened 36-hole event topped solo runner-up Kevin Fajt by two strokes, but there were plenty of worthy challengers, forcing Schmidt to be sharp from the start as he pursued the first West Penn Am repeat since Nathan Smith won four straight from 2007-10.

Schmidt estimated that “maybe 75 percent” of his career wins have come from behind, so proving he could consolidate a strong opening round was at the top of his mind.

“It felt good getting off to that good start,” he said. “I was confident I could pull it out and I could birdie every hole, but I knew pars were good scores, too.”

The Peters Township alum asserted himself from his first few swings Tuesday at the 118-year-old track, sticking a pair of short fairway approaches to inside 10 feet on the first two holes. Both birdie putts fell, stretching his lead to three over playing partner Darin Kowalski.

Kowalski entered the day just one back of Schmidt, hoping to follow up wins at last month’s Pittsburgh Open and the South Hills Country Club championship over the weekend. The Bethel Park native gained a bit of traction after Schmidt’s opening flurry, cutting his deficit to four with a solid par 3 on No. 3. Kowalski matched Schmidt’s up-and-down birdie at the fourth with one of his own, and the game appeared to be on.

But the tight, treacherous par-4 fifth effectively eliminated Kowalski from the fight. After driving into a bunker about 50 yards out, his long explosion shot skipped over the green and just a few inches out of bounds. Double bogey was the result.

Meanwhile, Schmidt blasted out of a greenside trap and knocked down the resulting 20-footer for a 3. His binge continued at the 500-yard par-5 sixth, where he had just a wedge in from the right rough, and the par-4 seventh, where he cleverly played a short iron well long of the flag and let the steep slope filter it within a few feet.

It was the kind of play that comes with course knowledge and experience, except Schmidt had only played Allegheny CC and its sloping greens once before this week, during a high school match a few years back.

“I didn’t even really remember the holes from last time,” Schmidt said. “It wouldn’t matter anyway, because I’m a different player now.

“I heard great things about (the course) and I was excited to play. It’s easy to put expectations on yourself (to repeat). I said to myself, ‘You’ve been playing well and it’s been a good summer. Let’s see what happens.’ ”

Schmidt poses with the W.C. Fownes Jr. Trophy on Tuesday. (WPGA)

Emblematic of how the final pairing quickly diverged, Kowalski’s similar approach to the back of the green on No. 7 was a yard too long and hung up in the rough, leading to a bogey.

Routine pars on 8 and 9 gave Schmidt a five-shot lead entering the more difficult back nine.

Good thing, too, because this summer’s Pennsylvania Open winner, Jimmy Ellis, was also taking advantage of Allegheny’s gettable front side. Playing two groups ahead of Schmidt, Ellis also went out in 30, climbing to 6 under in the process.

But he could never pull even with Schmidt, eventually bogeying four of six holes on the back as the wind picked up. Ellis, also a Peters Township grad, finished tied for fourth, four strokes back alongside former U.S. Amateur participant Brett Young.

Schmidt had his own issues on the back, relatively speaking. A lost ball on the par-5 10th produced a double-bogey 7 and put the repeat coronation on hold, and a bogey on 16 added pressure for the final two holes.

“Golf can change like that,” Schmidt said. “I had to bear down and grind on the back. It wasn’t as easy as it was 30 minutes before, but I just had boil it down and focus on every shot.”

Despite the back-nine 38, a routine two-putt par at the last clinched a more comfortable victory than last year’s at Oakmont Country Club, where Schmidt came from behind on the final day and had to wait until the final group finished to celebrate. Throw in his 2018 Pennsylvania Amateur win and he’s brought home a major regional title in each of the past three summers.

Due to COVID-19, he had to wait a little longer to defend the West Penn Am, but regardless of whether he teed it up on the first week of July or the last week of August, he’s been the best the amateur golf scene has had to offer for two years running.

“At least for how I was feeling this week, it comes down to mentality and your mental toughness,” Schmidt said. “I know my swing’s good and my putting stroke is good. I have all the shots, so it comes down to execution.”

For a tall, graceful athlete known as the ‘Big Cat,’ it’s become quite the task to tame him in a major event.

In addition to making the match-play portion of the North & South Amateur at Pinehurst, Schmidt also finished top five at the prestigious Sunnehanna Amateur last month, then followed that up with a T-4 result at the Pennsylvania Open at Oakmont a couple weeks back.

Schmidt attributed his improved consistency this summer to having more time to practice and play, as he didn’t have the responsibility of a 9-to-5 office internship like he did in 2018 and ’19.

“I’ve grown to have more confidence in myself lately,” Schmidt said. “I really believe I’m one of the best amateurs in the world and can win any event I tee it up in.

“I accomplished maybe half my goals (this summer), but I don’t have any regrets. Even after this victory, I think I left something in the tank. I feel like I need to keep improving. I think that’s a good quality to have for my career.”

Oh, and he’s got another year left at Drexel thanks to the NCAA’s COVID-19 exemption. The fall ‘non-championship’ season has been cancelled and he’s taking classes remotely for now, so good thing he took advantage of his final chance to shine before getting back to his studies.

“The only thing I was missing this summer was a win,” Schmidt said, “and I got it in the last event.”

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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