These Bears Are Golden: Du/Zheng Take Title at Kiawah Island Club
Aaron Du and Sampson Zheng did not get the opportunity to play for an NCAA title this coming weekend in Arizona, so a USGA national championship is a mighty good substitute.
The two 21-year-old rising seniors at the University of California-Berkeley, whose team missed qualifying for NCAAs by three strokes exactly a week ago in Norman, Okla., capped off a remarkable five days at Kiawah Island Club on Wednesday by winning the 8th U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship with a 2-and-1 victory over Drew Kittleson and Drew Stoltz in the 18-hole final at Cassique.
They are the first No. 1 seeds to claim the championship, and the second consecutive co-medalists to hoist the trophy, following Chad Wilfong and Davis Womble a year ago at the Country Club of Birmingham (Ala.). They are also the second and third Cal golfers to hoist a USGA trophy; Ben An, who attended the school for one year (2010-11), won the 2009 U.S. Amateur at 17 a year prior to coming to Berkeley.
“For me it's history,” said Zheng. “Our names are going to go down forever in history. Fifty years, 100 years later when this tournament continues on, our names are going to be on [that trophy]. That's such an amazing thing to think about.”
Du and Zheng joined 2022 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Wenyi Ding as the only male golfers from the People’s Republic of China to claim a USGA title, and the fifth overall from the country following Fumi (Alice) Jo (2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links) and Lei Ye (2019 U.S. Girls’ Junior).
“There aren't too many champions from China at this level,” added Zheng, “so I really hope that this can inspire junior golfers in China to do the same in the future.”
Scottsdale, Ariz., residents Kittleson, 34, and Stoltz, 38, lost in the championship match for a second consecutive year after a tough 19-hole match to Wilfong/Womble. Kittleson, a reinstated amateur, also was the runner-up to Danny Lee in the 2008 U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst during his collegiate days at Florida State.
“Last year we were close,” said Stoltz, a father of two young children. “At this point after two [finals] would you rather just dip out in stroke play or would you rather get your hopes up and then come up short again? But we had a helluva week. This is one of my best friends on the planet. There's no other dude I'd want to go to war with. He hit some unbelievable shots, and yeah, maybe today was just a case of running out of gas. But for whatever reason the [putts] didn't fall for us.”
Both sides came into the final 36 under par for the week, with the usual match-play concessions. Du and Zheng had played 100 holes, including stroke play, while Kittleson and Stoltz, who hosts a Sirius/XM Radio show on the PGA Tour Network with two-time USGA champion Colt Knost, had played 109.
But it was the college kids who made more birdies (6 to 4), including three on the second nine that clinched the match. The first came at the par-5 11th with the match tied. Facing a 96-yard approach into the wind and a challenging hole location, Du stuffed his 52-degree wedge to 4 feet. Then on the 180-yard 13th, Zheng’s punch 6-iron stopped 14 feet from the flagstick, and he converted. Back on Sunday during the final round of stroke play, Zheng made eight consecutive birdies and 10 overall.
After missing a 4-footer for birdie on the par-5 15th that trimmed the deficit back to 1 up – Stoltz converted from 6 feet – Zheng delivered another clutch 6-iron on the 196-yard 16th hole. From just off the green, he calmly rolled in a 12-footer that included a fist pump and a 2-up lead.
On the 380-yard 17th hole, both Du and Zheng had wedge approaches inside 60 yards, while Kittleson’s 300-plus drive over the penalty was just off the putting surface. Du and Zheng knocked their second shots to 8 and 4 feet, respectively. Kittleson, trying to force the match to No. 18, nearly holed out his 15-yard pitch for a conceded birdie.
Du, putting first, executed his birdie putt perfectly, and after emotional hugs, they were hoisting the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Trophy.
“I've always dreamed having that putt to win the tournament,” said Du. “And that moment it was just so special. It's a dream come true to be able to have that putt in the first place, and then making it, obviously with my partner, Sampson here, it doesn't get any better than this.”
Kittleson, the father of a 5-year-old, and Stoltz both had good looks at birdie on the front nine, but missed great chances at Nos. 6 and 8 before Stoltz ran in a 5-footer for birdie on the ninth to tie the match.
“Yeah, tough day,” said Kittleson. “Didn't really make that many putts in the afternoon match. Just came up short. I don't really know what else to say. Had a great time, great venue, course is awesome, USGA was great, volunteers were awesome. Partner was awesome.”
In the semifinals earlier on Wednesday, Du and Zheng made seven birdies in outlasting Ohioans and ex-Wright State teammates Tyler Goecke and Bryce Haney, 2 and 1. Zheng converted a 15-footer on the 17th hole to close out the match.
Kittleson ripped a 310-yard drive on the 380-yard, par-4 17th to 6 feet, and his conceded eagle led to a 2-up victory over 2022 semifinalists and co-medalists Carter Loflin, of Duluth, Ga., and Wells Williams, of West Point, Miss.
The 2024 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship will be contested May 25-29 at Philadelphia Cricket Club. Entries are now open and close on Aug. 9 at 5 p.m. EDT.
Runners-up Drew Kittleson and Drew Stoltz received silver medals and exemptions into the next three U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championships, while the semifinalists received bronze medals and earned a two-year exemption.
For the first four days of the championship, Sampson Zheng chose to push his own cart around Kiawah Island Club. But on Wednesday, he had Kyle Boucher from the pro shop staff on his bag. His partner, Aaron Du, continued to push his own cart.
The father-son tandem of Mark and Jake Wiktor caddied for Drew Kittleson and Drew Stoltz, respectively. The younger Wiktor plays on the North Carolina State golf team.
Du and Zheng will head to Cherry Hills Country Club in suburban Denver, Colo., in August for the U.S. Amateur, where a pair of Cal players made deep runs the last time the championship was contested there 10 years ago. Michael Weaver was the runner-up (lost in 37 holes) and Brandon Hagy advanced to the semifinals. They were part of that great Cal team – which also included Max Homa – that won 11 times in 2012-13 before losing in the semifinals of the NCAAs in Georgia after winning the stroke-play portion of the championship.
The semifinal loss by Carter Loflin and Wells Williams prevented the first matchup of top-2 seeds in a USGA championship final since the 2016 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur when No. 2 seed Julia Potter-Bobb defeated top-seeded Shannon Johnson.
“I personally didn't know what to expect coming out here having not played River [Course], only played Cassique [in the practice rounds], but I definitely know that if we played to our potential that this was a possibility. I'm really glad that we played the way we did.” – Sampson Zheng reflecting on the week in which the side played 42-under-par golf over 117 holes
“We were just joking like these [Cal] guys play golf every day. They're like college kids. Their only job is to play golf. We have a family, we have jobs, we never practice or anything. So it's like, there's a little bit of that, too. We're true Mid-Ams.” – Drew Kittleson on the marathon week of golf that became seven rounds in five days (126 holes)
“Any multi-day [golf] event we play in involves riding in carts, drinking and listening to music.” – Drew Stoltz
“I think one thing we can probably take away from this week is that we're both pretty clutch. I think that's kind of the main thing. We had a lot of gritty par saves and birdies. It was good partner work all week.” – Carter Loflin after finishing with a bronze medal a second consecutive year with partner Well Williams
“That hole, there's no good tee shot on that hole. There's just not. The fairway is tiny. You hit it through the fairway into the rough just about every time you hit that shot.” – Williams on the sharp, dogleg-right par-17 th hole that is drivable for the biggest hitters
“It was amazing. The host facility was absolutely unbelievable. I had a great partner (Tyler Goecke), had my family here, so it was great, a great experience for me.” – Bryce Haney summing up the past week at Kiawah Island Club
“I feel like [Philadelphia] Cricket [Club] is going to be special, and I've heard nothing but good things, and really looking forward to that next year.” – Tyler Goecke on earning an exemption with Haney for the next two U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championships
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com. Jonathan Coe, the USGA’s senior manager, championship communications, contributed to this report.