What a week at the 117th US Amateur Championship
by: Chris Smeal
I got the text about a month ago when Joey Vrzich won the qualifier to get into the US Amateur Championship to be conducted at Riviera CC and Bel Air CC in Los Angeles, CA. I first texted congratulations and then immediately replied with “Who is your caddy?” . I knew we had a chance to do something special and I wanted to be right there with him to take advantage of this opportunity he created for himself by qualifying. Since the day he qualified we were texting back and forth about how we would prepare and how we would think at the Championship. First things first was to get his swing dialed in now so that he wasn’t in a mechanical state at the event or even leading up to it. I wanted to him firing on all cylinders too so the goal was to practice short game and play as much as possible leading up to the week. On the mental side the texts included thoughts of “Staying in the moment” and always a focus on “one shot at a time and let’s see what happens”. The practice round times came out and although I couldn’t make the practice round Saturday at Bel Air his uncle Marc was on the bag and did a great job checking and planning out a strategy at Riviera. Marc is an exceptional golfer and has been a huge part of the development of Joey’s game and his attitude about the game. A true asset to his team. I arrived Saturday night after 3 hours of brutal traffic to stay at an Air B n B in Venice Beach. This was a weird situation to say the least but I will just say I wasn’t very comfortable staying there but it was an experience I will remember and a nice addition to this week’s story. I headed out suited and booted to the USGA Welcome Dinner at Riviera CC and was a fantastic night with Joey, his unlce Marc and father Mike. It was cool to hear some of the history of the event, check out the Riviera Club House, see tons of former students and FCG Tournament players who grew up in our program. It was treat to hear from Mark Wahlberg and his passion for the game and his experiences at Riviera CC. He delivered a nice motivating message to players. I remember sitting there and being surrounded by very accomplished players, former champions of USGA events, major college events, and more and thinking hey we are here let’s get in the mix.
Sunday’s final practice round would be at Bel Air at 7:10am in the morning so we all met for breakfast at 6, did a short warm up and headed out to start on the back 9. The practice round went well as we figured out a strategy for the course he had never seen before. The back 9 is very challenging with literally only one semi-easier chance at a birdie so we knew it was important to play very solid golf and get his lag putting dialed in. When we turned to the front we found several holes that he could score on and we knew that this would be his final 9 for a chance to make it to match play so we would have a plan depending on where we were at to play conservative or bring home the bacon. We both loved the course, especially the history of the course and the tunnels and elevator. To hear golf carts were designed to fit in the tunnels was pretty cool. The tunnels were so small I had to duck to walk through them and one was a good 300 yard walk.
Ok let’s kick off Day 1 Stroke play round at Riviera with our game plan of one shot at a time and let’s let the magic happen. Joey striped it down the middle on Hole 1 and missed the green with a 6 iron but hit a beautiful tough pitch shot to 3 feet and saved par. I loved this start to the round because he had to hot a tough shot around the green and make a putt and he was successful at both so I knew he was ready for this challenge. We were cruising through 4 with no mistakes and sitting at even par. Then on 6 the par 3 with the bunker he lipped out hole in one and had tap in birdie. A solid par on 7 and then another great birdie on hole 8. Walking off hole 8 Joey says’ Hey I think it’s downwind on 10” and I am like buddy we haven’t even played Hole 9 tee shot yet… that’s not staying in the moment and one shot at a time. We made a sloppy bogey on 9 and then on 10 we made a good bogey that kept us in the Championship. This could have been a big number except he hit one of the most impressive flop shots I’ve even seen. Joey bogeyed all the par 4’s on the back 9 and missed a short putt on 18 to post a 74 in round 1. This round got away from us and shot have been a 70 at worst. So I was a litte concerned heading into the final stroke play round cause now we needed a near perfect round at Bel-Air CC to make it.
Round 2 stroke play at 7:20am was off and running with a solid par on 10 a brutal par 3 start. Joey plays great golf through the first few holes and them mis judged a long part on the par 3 and makes a bogey. This was tough cause he hit an awesome tee shot to a tough pin and we had no real room for errors today. The next hole he drove it 340 down the middle and left a 3 iron on the par 5 but missed right in the deep rough and made an impressive par. The next hole a three putt from the fringe and now 2 over par. He pars the remaining holes on the back 9. Walking to hole 10 I told him he needed the best 2 hours of his year right now if he wants to continue playing in the Championship. He hit two perfect shots on Hole 1 and lipped out a beautiful eagle putt but makes birdie. Hole 2 after a drive in the right rough and a tough 2nd shot he hits to 30 feet right of a tough pin, he three putts for a bogey. We didn’t need that but we stayed patient and moved forward. His approach over the water on the par 3 was hit slightly fat and came up on the front of the green so he was relieved in a good mood after that break. Almost birdied the next hole and we walk to the par 3 5th and we chatted about this being go time. We knew it was a choke down full swing 7 iron with where the flag was an he executed perfectly to 7 feet and drained the putt for a birdie. The next hole we played aggressive hitting driver up to about 65 yards and he lipped out the wedge shot and tapped in for another birdie. The drive on 7 was smashed and he stuffed his wedge to about 10 feet to a tough pin on a tier. He just missed the putt and a tap in par. On hole 8 he drove in the bunker and we made a good lay up decision and had a good yardage. A little fear creped in and he missed the green n the fringe, blew his first putt by and nearly gave me a heart attack but drained the 7 foot comebacker. A solid par on 9 which included a 4 foot left to right slider got us in at 144 and 4 over par. We pulled up the scores and he sat in 111th place at Noon.
The afternoon worry and hope begins and during lunch he drops from 111 to 93rd place pretty quickly, the wind starts to blow pretty strong and we know the greens are only getting faster and now we think we have a chance at match play. I called and got another night at the weird Air B n B house in hopes to keep the magic alive. Well after the afternoon play he gets to Tie for 57th place and will have to play a playoff the next morning with 13 players for 8 spots. I was so pumped at the opportunity. Meanwhile we having dinner in Venice Beach the guy at the bar next to me fell out of his chair and I thought he died, it was a total scene and everyone was helping him until the ambulance got there and took him away. I hope he is ok cause it didn’t look good.
The Playoff! This is one of my favorite moments in my coaching career as we are warming up on the range and coming up with a game plan to play hole 10 at Riviera in a playoff. This is a very tough par 4 because the green is TINY!!! And the green is ROCK HARD! So originally his plan was to lay up with 3 iron and stuff his wedge shot because his wedge play has been near perfect. I was thinking the play was to hit Driver and eliminate one shot and maybe get in an ideal spot for an easier pitch around the green I said to him “say a week from now you are sitting on the couch and we didn’t make it, what would you have wished you did differently?” he replies: “Let’s hit Driver” . We get up to the tee and he is forst to hit and it is a very nervous scene. I was way more nervous than him and wanted to see him succeed so badly. We talk about the shot and I said just hammer it but keep it left of the pin. See the ball falling out of the sky left of the flag. They call his name and he absolutely striped it right at the flag and it ends up in the front right bunker. After the other players play he hits the spiciest bunker shot to about 7 feet leaving him a nice look at birdie. He says “I got the read it’s left edge and die it in there” – His execution is perfect and BIRDIE! We are in to the Match Play of the US Amateur Championship!
I will summarize the first match as best as possible. We got off to a great start winning the first two holes with solid pars and were cruising along nicely until a hiccup bogey on hole 10 and a birdie by Singh on Hole 11 got us to 1 up. We got to 13th tee and I pulled him aside and said “I want you playing like you are 1 down, let’s go! Let’s win this match. He played very solid winning the next couple holes and after sticking his approach on the par 3 16th the match was concluded at 4 and 2.
Match 1 Mistake – Hey Joey… I think it’s 3 iron off this tee, it’s only 414 and there in no wind! Joey says no I like 3 wood… hammer draw through the fairway and into this mess! Glad we didn’t lose this match but we did lose this hole.
The 2nd match would be very similar and we got off to another nice start with a couple early wins to get ahead in the match and take the lead. The match would conclude this time on Hole 17 after a solid par and a 3 and 1 victory at Riviera CC.
The final match we would play came in the sweet 16 which was very cool to still be there after so many great players had gone home so much earlier. We were waiting in the club house during lunch to see who our competitor would be and after a grueling 19 hole battle we got Doug Ghim a senior at University of Texas. We were hoping to play against Sahith Theegala from Pepperdine as Sahith was a long time Future Champions Golf player and I have known them Sahith was 7 years old. That would have been fun to have to FCG Members battle in the Top 16 of the United States Amateur! The entire time of match play I never looked at who the players were, their resumes or background. We didn’t care we just wanted to go out and battle and see what happens. We did the same here except I knew about Doug and his accomplishments so I knew we were in for our toughest fight and we needed to bring the heat. Joey hit the dead middle of the fairway again with 3 wood on Hole 1 at Riviera for the 4th straight time, literally you could lay a towel over all four tee shots on that hole. He likes it when the people are around. We tied hole 1 with par. On hole 2 Joey hit a drive right and he was stuck behind the trees. It was 190 yards to the hole and he needed about a 30 yard hook to get it around the green and into wind. He came up just short and hit a good pitch but missed a 7 foot putt to have the hole so he went one down and this was the first time he trailed in any match. The next hole he bounced right back with a tap in birdie and won the hole to square the match. Hole 4 was a 235 yard par 3 dead into the wind and Joey hit the green again for the 4th straight time…. Impressive! He made a par and Doug had a brutal 8 foot breaking downhill putt that he poured in the center. That was big for him! Both made par on hole 5 and still even but then on hole 6 the par 3 Joey had been killing this hole with 2 birdies and a tap in par already. This time Doug hit a great shot to about 5 feet and Joey pulled his tee shot to the top left of the green. The pin was middle right and the only play was to try and pitch it with spin and kill in the slope which he executed perfectly but still too quick and rolled twenty feet past and made bogey. Doug now 1-Up Both made solid pars on Hole 7 as the camera crews from Fox Sports started to join us along with commentator and amazing amateur Buddy Marucci. On Hole 8 they made it a reachable par 4 of about 290 yards with a crazy fall off short and all down the right side of the green with a right pin. We waited to see what Doug did and he hit a beautiful 3 wood just left of the green on the fringe and had a very probably birdie. We decided to play the same shot but Joey pulled it further left into the rough leaving a tough pitch from about 50 yards. He executed perfectly and the ball just missed the lip and sat at the edge of the hill but then after a few seconds rolled all the way down the hill 15 yards into the rough. Doug chipped to a foot and Joey failed to pitch it is for the half so now 2 down. On hole 9 Doug split the fairway and Joey pulled drive into the left bunker forcing a lay up. This is where it gets fun/ entertaining for sure! We were in between clubs at 128 yards to a back left pin that he needed to hit it close and try and save par. He decided on hard Gap Wedge and leaned on it pretty good with all the camera crew and commentators now focused on this shot – SHANK! Yes… Shank! Almost hit a guy… We walked to his ball and I couldn’t help but try and relax him and started laughing and said “Hey buddy, you just shanked it on National Television 😊 We had a laugh and I said now just hole this shot and show the world the most Epic Par ever…. Take your time and walk up to the green please! Ok he comes back and hits the approach to 5 feet, looked like it almost landed in the hole… that would have been sweet! We lose that hole to Doug’s par and now head to the back 3 down…. That quickly got away from us and we knew it was go time as Doug is too good of a player to give us any so time to go make birdies and hit golf shots. Joey drove it right in front of the 10th green, pitched to 4 feet and made the birdie to get back to 2 down. Both players hit good drives on 11, we decide to hit 3 iron from 240 to the front edge downwind and he came up just short but hit a great pitch that rolled too much to about 15 feet, Doug chips in makes his birdie and Joey buries it dead center to halve with birdie. The 12th hole is a demanding tee shot and Joey missed this one out to the right and caught the trees leaving a long 230 yards to the hole. He hit a great shot just slightly left that caught the tree and kicked in the bunker. He was dead but hit an impressive bunker shot to 12 feet. Doug had a tough bunker shot too short sided but he hit a beauty to 3 feet. Joey missed and we back to 3 down. We are hoping he gives us one but not happening… after Doug drives in right trees he hits a miracle hook shot around the trees and over the bunker and runs it up to 15 feet on the fringe… truly an amazing clutch shot. Joey was center of fairway and stuffed it to 12 feet. Doug missed his birdie attempt and unfortunately Joey missed a bit on the low side so still 3 down. We have no choice but to keep firing at pins. Doug misses to idle of the green about 30 feet from the hole and Joey hits a good one again to 15 feet… BOTH MISS ☹ The tricky 15th hole dogleg right par 4 Doug hits to left rough and Joey dead center. Joey hits first and hits it right at it with 4 iron from 219 and the ball bounces through the green… That shot looked so good and clutch in the air ☹ Doug hit the same shot and rolled 30 feet past. Joey chips to 7 feet and Doug putts to 5 feet. Joey buries the 7 footer and we pray this one time for a miss from Doug but he is too good and purs it in dead center. The par 3 16th is our last chance to make something happen as we are now dormie. Doug hits a solid shot to 15 feet and Joey steps up and takes dead aim hitting it right at it and about 7 feet past the hole. Doug buries his birdie putt to close out the match and with that our run at the US Amateur Championship is over. I could not be more proud of Joey this week and the past year. Joey came to me at the end of last summer and said he wanted a lesson every week on Tuesdays and didn’t want to mis a week and he would put in the time and the work. He did just that and went from a 76 shooter in tournaments to reaching the top 16 in the US Amateur in just one year time. He also won an AJGA event, won the Canadian International Junior Championship, the San Diego City Conference Tournament, and shot 59 in a round at Rams Hill back in March. Sky is the limit for this kid as he heads off to play college golf at the University of Reno now. I cherish my time with Joey and look forward to many more adventures with him!
“I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to caddy for me. Coach chris and I were a perfect team and will continue to be a perfect team throughout my golfing career. He taught me how to deal with pressure and to think and execute in the moment not in the past or future. So I am thankful for coach chris!” – Joey Vrzich