Top Northwest seniors ousted in U.S. Senior Amateur
by Ron Bellamy
And then there were none.
The last three Pacific Northwest golfers remaining in the U.S. Senior Amateur were unable to survive the Round of 64, the first round of match play Monday at Eugene Country Club.
Tom Brandes of Bellevue, Wash. found himself 4 down after 10 holes to defending national champion Sean Knapp of Oakmont, Pa., won three straight holes to close within 1-down, but could get no closer and lost 2-and-1.
Pat O’Donnell of Happy Valley, Ore. rallied from 2 down against Buzz Fly of Memphis, Tenn., to draw even after 11 holes. He then hit his tee shot on the par 3 12th into the water, and Fly won that hole and the next two for a commanding lead, eventually winning 3-and-1.
Jim McNelis of Gig Harbor, Wash. won just one hole in his match, the second, in losing 4-and-3 to 2013 Senior Amateur champion Doug Hanzel of Savannah, Ga.
Such was the strong play of their opponents that only once Monday did a member of the Pacific Northwest contingent hold a lead; O’Donnell parred No. 3 but Fly took the next hole to draw even and never again trailed.
The Brandes-Knapp match was the most riveting, with the 56-year-old defending champion taking command with exceptional putting on the front nine, and then withstanding Brandes’ charge on the back nine.
“He hit it to about five feet on 1,” Brandes said. “Makes that putt. Hit it way left on No. 2, flops it within 15 feet. Makes that putt for par to tie me.
“Third hole he hits it to 10 or 15 feet, and I hit it to 20 feet. I make it before him for birdie, and he makes another for birdie. So he one-putts one, two and three and I’m saying to myself, ‘Well, one thing I know, he can putt.’”
Knapp made four birdies on the front nine, and Brandes made two of his own. “I’m just trying to hang on,” he said.
Down four after 10 holes, Brandes won 11 and birdied No. 12 from 8 feet when Knapp finally missed a putt, and birdied No. 13, a par 5. But Knapp had birdies on No. 16 and 17 to close the deal.
Knapp is now 7-0 in match play in the Senior Amateur after taking last year’s title at The Minikahda Club in Minneapolis in his first year of eligibility.
“When you play the better players in the country – and Tom is one of them – you just know they are just not going to give it to you,” said Knapp, who recorded six birdies. “I probably don’t win that match unless I win last year. What I mean by that is I don’t know him or much about him. All I know is his reputation. And when a guy plays really, really well – and he was playing well – it would have been easy for me to say, ‘What’s going on here?’ and be a little confused. Instead, I didn’t have any of that.”
Said Brandes, “You don’t feel bad when you play pretty (well). I’ve played better but I played just about as well as I could. A guy like that you just shake his hand and acknowledge good golf and wish him luck.”
For Brandes, the week had been a homecoming. He lived in Eugene from third grade through graduation from Marist High School, and learned the game at Eugene Country Club.
“Oh, man, what a great week,” he said. “Coming back here. Seeing everything, my old house, my old hang-out places, just being in a place that was very memorable to me early in my golfing days. Essentially this is home for me.
“And what was really fun was the people who reached out to me, and now that the tournament is over I’m going to reach out to a few people too.”
The O’Donnell-Fly match was a rematch of a 2013 Senior Amateur semifinal, which O’Donnell won to reach the final.
Monday, Fly’s strong mid-iron and short-iron game, and steady putting, were too much for O’Donnell to overcome on a day that his own iron play and putting were not at their best.
“Not my best stuff today,” O’Donnell said. “I just struggled. Too many missed putts. It was kind of a struggle, putting, and you’ve got to be on your game.”
Down 2 after eight holes, O’Donnell won No. 9 and then No. 11, that coming when he made par despite the fact that his drive hit an official’s cart parked just off the fairway. As the golfers reached the tee box at No. 12, a par 3 over water playing 178 yards, momentum seemed to be shifting, but then O’Donnell put his tee shot in the pond.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I hit the shot exactly the way I wanted to, and the ball didn’t go anywhere. I was trying to hit a little knock-down that would run up that hill, and it just went in the water. It was 30 yards short of where I wanted to be.”
That led to the first of three straight winning holes for Fly to take control of the match. O’Donnell pulled within 2 down with two holes to play with a birdie on No. 16, the par 5, but Fly remained unflappable and when O’Donnell missed his birdie putt on No. 17 the match was over.
“Putting and irons,” O’Donnell said. “But I’ll be back.”
That was McNelis’ message after playing in the Round of 64 for the first time in his fourth Senior Amateur.
“I had some good looks at birdies and couldn’t get them,” McNelis said. “Doug played well, he’s a strong competitor. He’s knocking it on in two on the par 5s; he’s pretty tough.
“I didn’t make any birdie putts, and I made too many bogeys, and you just can’t do that in this format. He didn’t give me any holes; I had to earn everything.
“I’ll be back next year, for sure.”
Ron Bellamy is the former columnist and sports editor of The Eugene Register-Guard. For past golf writings visit ronbwriter.com.