Birdies Prove Decisive in Finals
Danny Lee, 18, has long had a dream to win the U.S. Amateur Championship and on Sunday he made it come true at Pinehurst No. 2.
For Lee, the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world, the No. 32 might just be as important as the No. 1 that goes with his ranking.
On the 32nd hole of the championship match, Lee, from New Zealand, won the 2008 U.S. Amateur 5 and 4 over Drew Kittleson when he rammed home a 32-foot birdie putt. He is now the youngest winner of the event in its illustrious 108-year history and joins a legendary list of former champions that includes the likes of Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Phil Mickelson, Francis Ouimet and E. Harvie Ward.
"This was my third year in the U.S. Amateur," Lee said, "and I am so excited that I don't know what else to say right now."
After carding a 66 in the morning (34-32) to take a 5-up lead into the lunch break, he began where he left off in the afternoon, with a birdie-par start to take a 6-up edge after 20 holes.
All indications led to a Lee blow-out victory. However, Kittleson made an awe-inspiring run that completely changed the character of the match.
Kittleson got the fire started by making mince meat of the par 4 340-yard 21st hole. From pin high left of the greenside bunker he hit a low pitch to seven feet and then sank the putt. Next, from just over the green on 565-yard par 5 22nd hole, he made a nice up-and-down for another birdie and was then 4-down.
The fire was burning high when he won the 24th hole with a par. A hole later it was blazing, when a gallery of more than 1,500 people let out a deafening roar when he chipped in for eagle from 22 yards, on the par-4, 375-yard 25th hole to go 2-down.
Kittleson felt the eagle chip-in gave him a bit of an adrenaline rush.
"I felt like Tiger Woods for a second," said Kittleson. "The crowd got real loud and I looked around and I thought, 'Wow there's a lot of people yelling right there.'"
Lee was not surprised that Kittleson made a charge.
"I knew he was a good player," Lee said, "because he made it to the finals here. When he made that chip-in I knew I had to play well, keep focused on my game and make birdies."
With Lee looking at a four-foot birdie putt on the green of the 467-yard, par-4 26th hole, Kittleson drained a 31-foot uphill breaker for a three. The hole was halved with birdies.
Just as it seemed he was losing his grasp of the match, Lee responded in a major way on the next hole, a downhill 170-yard par-3. He teed his ball up and launched an amazing shot that landed three feet from the flag. Lee sank the short putt for birdie, moving on to the final nine, 3-up.
After the match, Kittleson modestly tipped his hat to Lee.
"He played awesome," Kittleson said. "I don't think he missed one putt inside 15 feet and that is what you have to do to win a championship I guess.
"I mean what are you going to do -- I think I was 5-under through eight and only picked up two holes on him. I went birdie-birdie to go 3-down, chip in for eagle to get to 2-down, then tie with another birdie and he turns around and birdies the next two (holes).
"There is just not much you can do about it. It was really kind of fun to watch. He was just making everything -- he just poured it in."
The two amateurs put on an amazing display of golf on the outward nine of Donald Ross' crown jewel course, Pinehurst No. 2. Kittleson shot a 5-under 30, while Lee posted a 32.
On the 562-yard par-5 28th hole, Lee's second shot, from 271 yards out, hit the green and rolled off the back. He then flopped his third shot to three feet, and tapped-in for birdie to go 4-up.
Still 4-up on the 30th hole, (449-yard par-4), Lee tugged his drive into the third cut of the left rough. He drew a hairy lie in the third cut of rough and shanked his second shot to the first cut of rough, 155 yards from the hole.
As a result, it appeared Kittleson had a good chance at winning the hole, with his ball in the fairway, sitting 153 yards from the hole.
Lee then came through in the clutch, stroking a ball that soared directly at the pin and landed 5 feet from the cup. Kittleson responded with an approach shot that finished 7 feet left of the pin. However, Kittleson missed his birdie try while Lee preserved his 4-up advantage by sinking his putt for par.
Both players went for the green on the 323-yard, par -4 31st hole. Again, it appeared that Kittleson had the advantage, as Lee's drive ended up in the front left bunker while Kittleson was just behind the green, some 50 feet from the hole.
Once again, Lee put the pressure on by landing his explosion out of the trap 10 feet from the hole. Kittleson lagged his putt down to three feet from the hole, where he would make birdie. Lee then putted the ball into the middle of the cup for a birdie to halve the hole and move to the 468-yard, 32nd hole 4-up with five holes to play.
He split the center of the fairway with his drive, leaving 160 yards to the hole. With Kittleson in the right greenside bunker in two, Lee played a smart approach shot that landed left and short of the pin, 32 feet away.
Lee's caddie, Bob 'Boss' Scheirer, said his player told him walking up to the green that he wanted to make his putt to win the championship.
"I knew he was going to hit it firm," Scheirer said, "so I told him to just play it on the left edge."
Lee followed his caddie's advice as he aimed his putt at the left edge. Then he raised his arms in triumph when it hit the left side of the cup and dove in, ending a weeklong grind of two days o qualifying and six rounds of match play.
Lee felt his putting played a major role in his success throughout the week.
"I was really comfortable on the greens out there," said Lee. "When I was within 15 feet away, I felt like it was going to drop (every time.)"
Kittleson was spectacular in the afternoon, but it was just not enough as Lee was in another stratosphere.
"I played well," said Lee. "I played really, really well today, that is all I can say. I don't think I can play any better than this I played perfect golf."
Although Kittleson's comeback bid fell short, he chose to focus on the positives.
"It was a blast," said the runner-up, "and I am going to look back on this week and just know that I enjoyed it and that it is the biggest thing out there.
"If there is one tournament you would want to finish second in, this is definitely it. It has the most benefits that is for sure. I had an unbelievable time -- I truly lived the dream for the whole week."
Both the Amateur winner and runner-up customarily play in the following year's Masters and the U.S. Open, which is being held in 2009 at Bethpage Black.
Kittleson and Lee put on an astounding exhibition for the grand finale of an exceptional week of golf at Pinehurst. In the 32-hole championship match, 11 holes were won with birdie or better, while par was the winning score on just five holes. Three holes were also halved with birdies. No holes were halved or won with a bogey.
For the day Lee was 11-under-par and Kittleson was 5-under, despite carding a two-over 37 on the back nine in the morning.
Lee, the second straight New Zealander to win a USGA event on No. 2 (Michael Campbell, 2005 U.S. Open) made his intentions in terms of competitive golf clear at the post-match press conference.
"I am going to get ready for the big Majors," he said, "The Masters and U.S Open."
However, his immediate itinerary entails returning to New Zealand on Tuesday so he can complete high school. That task probably won't be quite as strenuous as his week at Pinehurst.
It is customary for the USGA to pair the U.S. Amateur champion with the reigning U.S. Open winner in the first two rounds of the following year's national championship.
When Lee was told he has a tee time waiting for him in late June 2009 with Tiger Woods (2008 U.S. Open Champion, Torrey Pines) at Bethpage Black, his eyes lit up.
"Wow," Lee said, "I did not know that."
Similar to his pre-shot routine, he took a slight beat to digest the pertinent information and then launched right into his light-hearted response.
"I'm going to beat him."
More like this story