Unlikely Winners Avrit, Price Embrace U.S. Am Proving Ground

By Ron Driscoll, USGA

| Aug 18, 2022 | PARAMUS, N.J.

Unlikely Winners Avrit, Price Embrace U.S. Am Proving Ground

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The U.S. Amateur Championship provides a world-class stage, an exacting test and an opportunity for the last two golfers standing to measure their games against the world’s best professionals the following year in major championships. Another important prize it can deliver is validation.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that I belong here,” said Owen Avrit, 21, of Arroyo Grande, Calif., the No. 55 seed, after his 3-and-2 victory over No. 10 seed Rasmus Neergaard Petersen, of Denmark, who is slotted 200 places above Avrit in the World Amateur Golf Ranking®/WAGR® (No. 38 to No. 238). “I’ve been lucky enough to play some of the teams’ No. 1 players during the college season, and it’s exciting to be here to test my game against them.”

Avrit, a rising senior at the University of Oregon, was not alone in upending any semblance of order in the Round of 64 on Wednesday at The Ridgewood Country Club. Alex Price, another championship rookie and 21-year-old who is No. 1,212 in the WAGR, also joined him in the Round of 32. Price produced an even bigger stunner when he ousted world No. 17 Wenyi Ding, of the People’s Republic of China, the winner of last month’s U.S. Junior Amateur, in 23 holes.

“I like being the underdog,” said Price, of Hillsboro, Va., and Christopher Newport University, an NCAA Division III school in Newport News, Va. “I like having me be the only person – and my family, of course – who really knows I can do it. I think that’s all it takes.”

That, and fierce determination not to allow doubt to creep in, as it could have when Price, who led the match for the first 15 holes, lost his lead after back-to-back bogeys. With the match tied on the par-5 17th, he watched Ding make a birdie and needed to match him from 8 feet to avoid losing a third straight hole.

“You can really feel [doubt] wanting to take over,” said Price. “Once he made that birdie putt, it was easy to feel like I was already down in the match as I stood over that 8-footer, because I got up so early.”

Price matched Ding’s birdie, then battled him evenly for five more holes before knocking in a 12-foot birdie putt on the 23rd hole, ending the longest match in the U.S. Amateur’s Round of 64 since 2018. According to his school’s website, Price is the first active Division III golfer to win a match in the U.S. Amateur in at least 20 years. Not bad for a player who pretty much gave up the game in favor of ice hockey for seven years, and is nursing a balky back this week.

Price gives some credit for his resilience to his hockey background, which began in earnest at age 8. Influenced by two older brothers, he played center, and was good enough to skate on travel teams through age 15, when a flurry of injuries led him to reconsider his choice of sport.

“From the moment I could walk, I loved hockey,” said Price, who plays golf left-handed. “I traveled all over the East Coast, and then I had three bad injuries in the span of a year, and I just told myself I’m not going through that again at all costs. I wasn’t a very good golfer as a 14-, 15-year-old, but I had a good swing, and I knew I could go places or do cool things in this game. I quickly fell back in love with it.”

Avrit was introduced to golf at age 2 by his father, Darren, and his passion for it has never wavered, bolstered by his long affiliation with the First Tee. He started with the youth development and empowerment program at age 4, and he is effusive in his praise of longtime mentor Billy Gibbs.

Alex Price

Injuries forced Alex Price to stop playing competitive ice hockey, so it took some time for him to blossom in golf. (USGA/Kathryn Riley)

“I’ve been involved with the First Tee of Central Coast (California) since before I can remember,” recalled Avrit, who spent a year at Long Beach State before transferring to Oregon. “It’s really been an honor to be part of a program that sets the standard for First Tee across the country. Coach Gibbs is a huge part of who I am today and how I’ve gotten here. It wouldn’t be possible without him.”

Avrit and his brother, Jack, who is two years older and played at Santa Clara University, have both attended First Tee academies, and Avrit has addressed a national leadership summit. Both played in the Pure Insurance Classic, a PGA Tour Champions event at Pebble Beach Golf Links that features a First Tee-sanctioned team competition, and Jack won it with 1979 U.S. Amateur champion Mark O’Meara in 2015.

Owen Avrit, Jack Avrit and Billy Gibbs

Owen Avrit and older brother, Jack, consider Billy Gibbs of First Tee like a second father. (Avrit Family)

Avrit will square off at 9:50 a.m. EDT on Thursday against 2021 USA Walker Cup competitor Ricky Castillo, an opportunity set up not only by his win over Petersen, a fifth-year senior at Oklahoma State, but by Avrit getting through a 15-for-11 playoff on Wednesday morning. He earned the No. 55 seed by making a par on Ridgewood’s 15th hole, a 148-yard par 3.

“That was a little bit of stress to wake up to,” said Avrit with a laugh. “This morning was my third try on that hole [counting the practice round], and I still haven’t hit the green. I thinned my tee shot a little and it came up short. I was able to pop my second shot out of the rough to about 5 feet. Making that putt gave me some good energy coming into this round.”

Price moves on to the match just ahead of Avrit, playing another highly ranked opponent, No. 7 seed Christo Lamprecht, 21, of South Africa and Georgia Tech, at 9:40 a.m. EDT.

“I certainly wasn’t near the level that pretty much everybody else in this field was at age 17 and 18, so I didn’t get those [Division I college] offers,” said Price. “But now that we’re all 21 or 22, I feel like I’m just as good as them and I can do just as good things in this game.”

Should Avrit and Price both win on Wednesday morning, they will square off in the afternoon in the Round of 16, a matchup that wouldn’t surprise either of them.

Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of content for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.