The winner of the 111th U.S. Amateur never reached the state tournament in high school, chose Southern Methodist University because it was convenient, became a three-time conference player of the year, and with his eligibility exhausted, decided this summer to pour all of himself into making the Walker Cup team.
In the past 11 weeks, Kelly Kraft has played eight tournaments. This was his last stop. And with his former teammates and coach having flown across the country to watch his unlikely coronation, Kraft held off Patrick Cantlay, the top-ranked amateur in the world, in a taut 36-hole final Sunday to win the U.S. Amateur and earn that coveted spot on the Walker Cup team. Such a logical career trajectory.
“It’s awesome,” said Kraft, 22, the gold Havemeyer Trophy by his side. “It’s such an honor to win this championship.”
And it only got better minutes after winning. On the 18th green, U.S. Walker Cup captain Jim Holtgrieve walked up to Kraft and said: “See you in Scotland.”
“I about had a heart attack,” Kraft said, smiling.
On another sun-splashed day at Erin Hills, Kraft played steady down the stretch and capitalized on two late, uncharacteristic mistakes by Cantlay to win, 2 up. The victory likely nets Kraft a Masters invite, and he will be exempt into the U.S. Open and British Open. That alone promises to alter his post-college plans. After the U.S. Amateur, the fifth-year senior at SMU, who already had won the Trans-Miss and Texas amateurs this summer, intended to turn pro and attempt qualifying school while completing his sociology degree. Now, he has a reason to retain his amateur status.
“I haven’t thought about that yet,” Kraft said. “I definitely want to play in the Masters. That’s something I’ll have to think about.”
Despite losing in the final, Cantlay cemented his place atop the amateur hierarchy and became one of the main stories of the summer. He is the No. 1 amateur in the world. He earned low-amateur honors at the U.S. Open. He shot 60 in a PGA TOUR event. He set a Tour record. All at age 19. But Sunday, in the biggest moment of his blossoming career, the UCLA sophomore was undone by a poor tee shot on the drivable 15th, a three-putt from 15 feet on 16 and, for the first time this week, failed to muster any late-round magic on the final two holes. Time to go back to Hollywood.
“I’m obviously disappointed,” he said. “I’m not thinking about what I did earlier this summer right now.”
That Cantlay even advanced to the U.S. Amateur final was a testament to both his talent and tenacity. In an explosive Round of 32 match against Russell Henley, the Nationwide Tour winner and fellow U.S. Walker Cupper, Cantlay was 2 down as he played No. 17 but chipped in to win the hole, made birdie on the final hole and prevailed in 21 holes. He summoned a similar feat against Max Buckley in the quarterfinals, winning the last three holes (including the first playoff hole) to advance.
So it was no surprise, then, that Cantlay began to mount a charge after falling 4 down after the 16th hole in the morning session. He holed a 50-foot birdie putt on 17 to win the hole, then capitalized when Kraft chopped up 18 and made triple bogey. Two down heading into the afternoon, Cantlay won Nos. 6 and 11 with pars to seize his first lead since the third hole. But Cantlay pulled an 8-iron “20 yards left” into a pot bunker on the 252-yard, par-4 15th and lost the hole, three-putted on the 16th hole, and made bogey on the par-5 18th hole to lose.
“Obviously, he played better than me,” Cantlay said, “but I feel like I threw away the golf tournament.”
The interesting thing about Cantlay’s meteoric ascension in the amateur rankings is that he did so without a national victory. He won the Southern California Amateur and was runner-up at the Western, where he lost to another unheralded player, Arkansas’ Ethan Tracy.
This time, it was Kraft’s turn. On Friday, he endured the longest match of the week – 23 holes, against UNLV’s Blake Biddle. When it was over, Kraft returned to the clubhouse for a 30-minute break, scarfed down a pulled-pork sandwich and had time for only a few practice putts before taking on his quarterfinal opponent, Patrick Rodgers, a U.S. Walker Cupper. That may have been to his advantage. He thrived in that situation, showing few signs of fatigue and winning, 6 and 4, to reach the semis. Kraft’s next opponent was no slouch, either, but Jack Senior, a GB&I Walker Cup team member, never led after the first hole and lost, 3 and 2.
As for the final, Kraft never had played with Cantlay, but vowed to stay even-keeled. “Then I can hopefully do some celebrating,” he said.
On Sunday, he had some company. Eight of his former SMU teammates boarded a private jet at 6 a.m. Sunday and arrived at Erin Hills as Kraft concluded his warmup on the range. They cheered lustily after each won hole and crisp shot and if Kraft walked off the tee without incident. Another SMU player, Buckley, advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur. That’s free publicity for new Mustangs coach Josh Gregory, who returned to his alma mater after leading Augusta State to back-to-back national titles. Incredibly, an SMU player now has won the U.S. Amateur three times in the past 14 years (Hank Kuehne, 1998; Colt Knost, ’07).
Lightly recruited out of high school – he never made it out of regionals – Kraft said he chose SMU because his hometown of Denton was 45 minutes north of Fort Worth. He won only one AJGA event before beginning his freshman year. “When I got to SMU,” he said, “winning the U.S. Amateur probably wasn’t a thought.”
Not that it mattered on Sunday night. His teammates flooded into the media center and snapped cellphone photos of the Havemeyer Trophy, savoring a moment that was three months in the making.