Raucous Cherry Hills gets amateur golf’s hottest pair in U.S. Amateur final
CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. – Neal Shipley couldn’t even begin to count the number of high-fives and fist bumps he received Saturday afternoon after nearly jarring a wedge shot from 93 yards on Cherry Hills’ par-5 penultimate hole to all but clinch himself a spot in the 123rd U.S. Amateur final.
As the Ohio State senior marched toward the island green, his ball having just spun back to inches, he was mobbed by a throng of fans who had broken contain from the rope line.
You da man!
Let’s go, buddy!
Nice work! Woo!
Shipley’s opponent J.M. Butler, a senior at Auburn, still had a chip to force another hole, but Shipley couldn’t help but get lost in the raucousness.
“That scene was just something I’m going to cherish for a long time,” Shipley said. “I mean, after that shot, just raw emotion. I was just so excited. I saw it almost go in, and I knew it was tight just because it looked like it touched the shadow on the bottom of the flagstick, and everyone was going crazy, I was going crazy.”
Moments later, Butler missed, officially securing Shipley’s place in Sunday’s 36-hole championship match opposite Alabama sophomore Nick Dunlap.
It’s a title bout that’s fitting if one considers that of the thousands of amateur players in the world, arguably no two have had hotter summers than Dunlap and Shipley. Dunlap, already a USGA champion as the winner of the 2021 U.S. Junior, won back-to-back Elite Amateur Series events, the Northeast Amateur and the North and South Amateur, before reaching the quarterfinals of the Western Amateur. Shipley’s break started with him birdieing three of his last four holes to lead the Buckeyes into the final round of stroke play at the NCAA Championship in May, and it continued with Shipley rattling off four top-3 finishes, three in that elite series.
Not that Shipley has received anywhere near equal credit. On Saturday, one reporter asked him about Dunlap, prefacing his question with Dunlap being “sort of like a Tour player.”
His hands still stinging, Shipley wasn’t entertaining that.
“I mean, I’d like to think I’m there, too,” Shipley said. “Obviously, he looks the part, and I might not because I’m one of the bigger guys, but that doesn’t really faze me.”
What isn’t debatable is the chasm between these two finalists’ origins. Dunlap was tabbed for greatness years ago, when a touring pro named Jeff Curl noticed a 10-year-old kid grinding in a downpour on the range at Greystone Golf and Country Club in Birmingham, Alabama. Now, Dunlap, a former top-ranked junior, is the ninth-ranked amateur in the world.
“I’ve known this was coming … I’ve told everybody,” said Curl, 44, who is a mentor and frequent caddie of Dunlap, including this week.
Shipley, meanwhile, didn’t garner a single Power 5 offer coming out of high school. He was a self-described “scrappy player” who struggled to find the center of the clubface. He ended up at James Madison, the only Division I interest he received, and spent three years there before transferring to Ohio State prior to last season.
These days, not only is that scrappy guy gone – Shipley has risen from No. 940 to No. 132 in a year – but according to Shipley’s teammate, Maxwell Moldovan, Shipley is a top-50 ball-striker in the world, amateur or pro.
Shipley was forced to showcase those chops against Butler as he stormed back from 3 down after 10 holes.
“I wasn’t mentally defeated,” Shipley said, “but I knew I was going to have to do something pretty special and continue to hit a lot of good golf shots, and I think I did just that.”
Shipley birdies Nos. 11 and 12 to claw back to 1 down, and then after a premature fist pump on No. 14 after a birdie putt didn’t drop, Shipley watched as Butler canned a lengthy par save and let loose himself. But Butler had too many hiccups down the stretch, twice hitting it into penalty areas, and Shipley won the final three holes of the match.
“I made some amateur mistakes for sure,” Butler said.
Dunlap arrived in the Denver area early last week as one of four U.S. Walker Cup team members to be invited to a small gathering at nearby Castle Pines. For Dunlap, it was beneficial to sharpen his skills against amateur stars Gordon Sargent, David Ford and Caleb Surratt, but he also was thankful to be afforded time to adjust to the altitude. Dunlap got a nose bleed and a massive headache a few days before the U.S. Amateur began, but by the time he arrived on the first tee Monday at Colorado Golf Club, he was feeling better.
Sure, a 5-over start after seven holes didn’t further improve things, but Dunlap recovered nicely, qualifying for the Round of 64 by two shots and then taking down Sargent in a first-round matchup that most around Cherry Hills were probably wishing was the final. On Saturday, Dunlap got behind early against Parker Bell, a Florida sophomore who only cracked one lineup last season, but he eventually grabbed control of the tee and the match.
“I’m a fighter,” Dunlap said. “I don’t give up, no matter what the situation is, no matter what’s thrown at me. … I just love the game, to be honest with you. I love when your hands are shaking, and that’s what I practice for. That’s why I get up early, that’s why I get up at 5 and work out and hit balls at 10 at night.”
Match scoring from the U.S. Amateur
With one sleep left in this U.S. Amateur, Dunlap draws Shipley, who, if Dunlap is considered the best amateur in the world right now and a match-play dynamo (29-2 in the format since July 2021), Shipley, with his flowing hair, burly build and infectious personality, is the sport’s new biggest celebrity. Ohio State head coach Jay Moseley calls him the “most interesting man in college golf.” Shipley’s teammates refer to him, playfully, as “Shipwreck.”
Shipley is full speed ahead into Sunday’s championship match, which begins at 8 a.m. local time, pushed back because of the breakneck pace shown by each finalist the past few days. No one could blame either, however, if they slowed down slightly with so much at stake.
While Dunlap and Shipley can already count on berths in the U.S. Open and a likely invitation to the Masters in 2024, the U.S. Amateur champion will receive both a spot in next year’s Open Championship as well as the shiny Havemeyer Trophy, which already features such names as Tiger Woods, Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus. And for Shipley, one more win would earn him an automatic spot on that 10-man U.S. Walker Cup team that will compete in two weeks at St. Andrews.
The remaining six spots on that squad will be unveiled Sunday afternoon after the final, and a Shipley inclusion, at this point, could mean that he’d bump Moldovan, who has stayed around at Cherry Hills to support his buddy.
Moldovan is aware of the potential scenario, but as he stood behind the ninth green Saturday evening, he said this: “I hope another Ohio State Buckeye wins a U.S. Amateur tomorrow.”
Regardless of who eventually lifts the hardware, judging by the crowd’s reaction Saturday at No. 17, the celebration will be epic.