Luke DeCock

Pinehurst unsparing as home-state golfers exit early in US Amateur

Someone’s going to win the U.S. Amateur, but it isn’t going to be anyone from the de facto home team. Local knowledge was no help to the locals as the last three North Carolinians exited in the round of 32 on Thursday.

Cary’s Parker Gillam, a rising junior at Wake Forest, was the last to go when his Hail Mary attempt from a greenside bunker on the 16th hole of Pinehurst’s No. 2 club narrowly missed the pin, leading to a 3-and-2 loss.

He followed the Triangle’s Akshay Bhatia on the road home as the world’s No. 1-ranked junior player concluded his individual amateur career with a 4-and-2 loss. Cornelius’ Blake Wagoner, a rising senior at Arizona State, was the first eliminated Thursday morning. He at least made it to the 17th hole, losing 2 and 1.

The only player left with even a tenuous in-state connection is Wake Forest rising sophomore Alex Fitzpatrick, from the not-so-local hometown of Sheffield, England, the younger brother of tour pro Matthew Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is one of only two foreigners in the round of 16 played late Thursday afternoon, so the odds are good the national amateur will be won by an American, but there’s no chance it’ll be someone from even closer to home.

North Carolina started with 15 players — almost 20 percent of the field — plus a few college players from elsewhere, but when Gillam walked off the course, that was it for the home state.

“Did Akshay lose?” Gilliam asked as he started to make his way back to the clubhouse after his match. “I’m the last one. Huh.”

Bhatia went into the tournament with the best shot, but fell behind early against Vanderbilt’s John Augenstine, then missed short birdie putts on the 13th, 14th and 15th holes with a chance to erase a three-hole deficit. His approach shot on 16 crawled just past the pin ... and then down a slope to the grassy edge of a bunker where the left-handed Bhatia had no stance.

His first attempt to chip the ball back up the slope ended up back at his feet; when his second also stalled, he conceded the match and closed one chapter of his amateur career. Bhatia will spend the next few weeks preparing to play for the United States at the Walker Cup, the biannual international amateur team competition, before taking a break at home in Wake Forest ahead of his professional debut at the PGA Tour’s Safeway Open in Northern California next month.

“Just onward and upward from here, learn from the mistakes I made,” Bhatia said. “It’ll certainly help me toward my next tournaments. Pinehurst is a great venue and the USGA, I’ve said it before, they put on some of the best tournaments in the world. To be able to be a part of a USGA event, especially in my home state, is awesome.”

It was likely Wagoner’s last amateur tournament, too, albeit without the same fanfare. The Hough product is headed back to Arizona State for his final year but savored the experience of not only qualifying for the tournament — he was co-medalist at the regional qualifier in Huntersville last month — but also making it through stroke play and winning his opening match Wednesday.

“Especially playing at Pinehurst, this is the first U.S. Am I’ve played in and possibly my last if I turn pro right after school,” Wagoner said. “It was pretty cool to be able to compete and played pretty well. Obviously, I wish I could have kept going, but I’m sure everyone does.”

Gillam, who made it through qualifying in Bluffton, S.C., and like Bhatia dodged Wednesday morning’s massive 27-players-for-three-spots playoff by a shot, especially liked having a gallery that included friends from home as well as past and present high school (St. David’s) and college (Wake Forest) teammates.

“It was great,” Gillam said. “I had a crowd the past couple days, 15 or 20 people, which is more than I’m used to. I had a great time. Had a bunch of friends come out, which was really nice. Really relaxing. Really comfortable.”

Still, by the time FS1 came on the air Thursday afternoon, the local flavor was gone. Pinehurst, as unsparing as ever, cut the locals no slack.

If there’s a new local favorite besides Fitzpatrick, it’s probably Austin Squires, a recent Cincinnati grad who was the final player to emerge from that swatfest of a playoff, after four extra holes and almost four extra hours of golf. He upset top-seeded Brandon Wu late Wednesday, then needed an extra hole to win his round-of-32 match Thursday morning.

Golf’s version of UMBC survived his round-of-16 match Thursday afternoon. By the time the quarterfinals start Friday, Squires will have spent as much time on Pinehurst’s courses as some members.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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