Joe Cansler was headed to the scoring tent behind the 18th green of Kiawah Island Club’s Cassique on Sunday when he uttered the words, “best golf I’ve ever seen.” He wasn’t describing the play of his partner and fellow North Carolinian, Jeremy Ray, but what he saw the past five hours from a pair of University of California-Berkeley juniors – and one in particular – during the second and final round of stroke play of the 8th U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship.
Sampsonyunhe Zheng, of the People’s Republic of China, who is partnering with countryman Aaron Du, recorded eight consecutive birdies from No. 9 on his own ball en route to a championship-record-tying day and eventually a share of medalist honors with 2022 semifinalists Carter Loflin, 18, of Duluth, Ga., and Wells Williams, 19, of West Point, Miss.
Zheng and Du, both 21, carded a 10-under-par 61 to match the 18-hole scoring mark, while both medalists produced 36-hole totals of 16-under 126 to tie the mark first set in 2016 at Winged Foot Golf Club by current PGA Tour pro Brandon Matthews and Patrick Ross.
College freshmen Loflin (University of Georgia) and Williams (Vanderbilt) birdied their final four holes on Cassique to sign for a 9-under 62, and co-medalist honors for a second consecutive year. They are the first side to be a multi-medalist.
In Saturday’s first round, Kevin Grady and Andrew Sovero shot 61, while Loflin and Williams were one of two teams to register 61s a year ago on the Country Club of Birmingham’s East Course.
The two medalists finished one stroke ahead of Christopher Newport University teammates Robb Kinder and Alex Price, and full-time National Hockey League referee Garrett Rank and Joseph Deraney, both past U.S. Mid-Amateur runners-up.
The match-play cut came at 8-under 134, one off last year’s record, with 10 sides playing off Monday morning for the final two spots in the 32-team draw.
Despite a passing morning shower, the conditions were again ideal for scoring with virtually no wind.
Zheng, who will represent the International Team in this summer’s Palmer Cup at Laurel Valley Country Club in Ligonier, Pa., took full advantage of the benign conditions. Until Sunday, he had never enjoyed such a birdie run, a round in which he finished with 10 overall.
“That’s a personal record,” said Zheng, who attended The First Academy in Orlando, Fla., before matriculating at Cal. “I believe the next best was five in a row, so, yeah, I was pretty impressed with myself. Some of the pins were pretty [accessible] but I had a bunch of good numbers. After the rain, the winds died down a little bit and my putting heated up.”
Added Du: “When I play with him, this type of play is common. I’m not surprised when he’s locked in and seeing those long putts drop is huge for us.”
Loflin and Williams came into this year’s championship hoping to erase the sting of last year’s 7-and-5 semifinal defeat to eventual champions Davis Womble and Chad Wilfong. As freshmen at their respective schools, both saw action with Williams claiming the Cabo Collegiate in early March. Loflin's best finish for the Bulldogs was 10th in the Ka'anapali Classic while competing as an individual. Loflin will be Georgia’s designated substitute (sixth man) at next week’s NCAAs in Arizona, while Williams is not on Vanderbilt’s postseason roster.
“We were coming into this blind,” said Loflin. “We didn’t have a lot of expectations, but after we played really well at River in tough conditions [on Saturday], I think we were both thinking that we could do it again. Another USGA medal never hurts.”
Kinder and Price, a quarterfinalist in last year’s U.S. Amateur, also arrived on property Saturday morning without the benefit of a practice round, having traveled from Kentucky after sharing second individual in the NCAA Division III Championship. Even without any course knowledge, the last side to register carried over that momentum to stroke play, and perhaps beyond.
“He had it going today, I didn’t play very well,” said Price of his partner. “I picked him up yesterday so that’s how you have to play four-ball.”
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, now the lead NFL analyst for CBS, and his partner, 6-foot-10 University of Texas freshman Tommy Morrison failed to qualify for match play after the duo shot 1-under 70 on the River Course. They posted a 36-hole total of 137, three strokes off the cut. Morrison next heads to Scottsdale, Ariz., for the NCAA Division I Championships, which begin on Friday.
“It was great,” said Romo after his first USGA championship. “The USGA put on an incredible tournament. The course setup was amazing and just the way they go about the process, it’s just a special championship to be part of. It was rewarding.”
The 10-for-2 playoff for the final match-play spots will start Monday morning at 7 on Cassique’s 10th hole and will continue on the back nine until it is completed. The first Round-of-32 match is set to begin at 9 a.m. Two more rounds of match play will be contested Tuesday, with the semifinals and 18-hole championship match scheduled for Wednesday.
“Being medalist at a USGA event goes a long way and will give us a lot of confidence going into the summer events. But most importantly, we’ll be in prime position to go all the way this week.” – Sampsonyunhe Zheng
“We’ve always been good friends, so regardless of the game we bring, it’s really more about the attitude that we bring. If we wake up on the right side of the bed, and we’re clicking, it usually turns out pretty good.” – Wells Williams on his partnership with Carter Loflin
“We talked about it earlier. It stinks we didn’t get a chance to play practice rounds but it’s almost easier that we didn’t have a day off. We just went straight from one tournament to the next. I think if you have a day or two off, you have to get out of ‘tournament mode,’ but we’re coming off playing well last week and keeping it going this week.” – Robb Kinder on being the last side to arrive
“We know there are a lot of good golfers out there and we know we’re right up there with them.” – 17-year-old Jeffrey Forster on excelling against more experienced players with fellow teen Teddy Vigna
“I’ve done Joe [Deraney] dirty the past couple of years with [NHL] playoff assignments so we haven’t been able to participate. It’s just fun to get out here. I haven’t played much golf this year.” – Garrett Rank after posting 15 under in his first U.S. Amateur Four-Ball with partner Joe Deraney
“This week was a great way for us to extend our friendship. I think we got closer after this week. Four-ball is a perfect format for that. We had a lot of fun and I look forward to more events with Tony.” – Tommy Morrison