The sting of not qualifying for the upcoming NCAA Division I Championships may be starting to finally wear off for Aaron Du and Sampson Zheng. Sure, the disappointment of their University of California-Berkeley team coming up three strokes short in last week’s regional in Norman, Okla., will always linger subconsciously, but what’s transpired over the last four days at Kiawah Island Club has at least given the two 21-year-old juniors a second wind of positive energy.
Du and Zhen, both natives of the People’s Republic of China who came to the United States as teenagers to attend high school in Florida, registered a pair of impressive victories on Tuesday at breezy Kiawah Island Club’s Cassique to reach the semifinals of the 8th U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship.
On a partly sunny day when the winds gusted into the mid- to upper-20s, the top seeds and co-medalists were a combined 10 under par over 31 holes in defeating Kevin Grady and Andrew Sovero, 3 and 2, in the Round of 16, and Nathan Cogswell and Colt Sherrell, 5 and 3, in the quarterfinals.
Joining them in the semifinals are fellow co-medalists and No. 2 seeds Carter Loflin and Wells Williams; and former Wright State teammates Tyler Groecke and Bryce Haney.
The final quarterfinal match was suspended after 17 holes due to darkness with 2022 runners-up Drew Kittleson and Drew Stoltz, both of Scottsdale, Ariz., leading, 1 up, over Tennessee teenagers Blades Brown and Jackson Herrington. They will resume the match at 7 a.m. on Wednesday.
Du and Zheng have been seemingly on a mission since the opening round of stroke play on Saturday at Kiawah Island Club’s River Course, the stroke-play co-host. Then they shot a championship-tying 61 on Cassique to post 16-under 126 and share the 36-hole scoring mark with Loflin and Williams, a pair of college freshmen at the University of Georgia and Vanderbilt University, respectively, who also tied for medalist honors in last year’s championship. They have dominated the first three matches, never going past the 16th hole while shooting a combined 13 under par.
“I think all of us who played at the regionals felt like they could have shot so much better. That includes us,” said Zheng, who finished tied for seventh individually. “You know, I think personally, like we're out here to prove something. Just for tomorrow I think we're just going to try our best to stay in the present. We know if we play our normal game, how we usually play, we'll have a good chance of winning.”
They will meet Goecke and Haney, a pair of Ohioans making their first USGA championship appearance. Goecke, 22, of Xenia, who will be a fifth-year senior, rolled in a clutch 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to stave off Colorado natives Maxwell Lange and Hunter Swanson, 1 up.
His putt came moments after Swanson rolled in a 30-footer for birdie, forcing Goecke to convert to avoid the match going extra holes. Getting a good read from partner Haney, a 25-year-old from Huber Heights who recently earned his master’s degree from Wright State, Goecke delivered, letting out an emotional yell upon the ball entering the hole.
“I mean, we were 3 up on the back nine there,” said Goecke, the 2023 Horizon League individual champion and the conference’s player of the year. “They really made it a match and we didn't want to go extra [holes]. I was a little nervous, but you just got to step up. That's what you dream of.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Goecke and Haney eliminated Indiana high school golfers Peyton Blackard and Brayden Miller, 3 and 2.
Loflin, of Duluth, Ga., and Williams, of West Point, Miss., raised their U.S. Amateur Four-Ball match-play record to 6-1 by advancing to the semifinals for a second consecutive year. But the 19-year-olds survived two nailbiters to get there.
In the Round of 16, the duo needed a Loflin 8-foot birdie on the 20th hole to defeat Adam Miller and Mason Snyder, and in the afternoon quarterfinals, they played 6-under-par golf in ousting Southern Methodist University rising sophomores Zach Kingsland and William Sides, 1 up. It was the second straight quarterfinal defeat for Kingsland and Sides in this event.
“Those kids were tough,” said Loflin of Miller and Snyder. “They were really good. They were extremely good partners. If one was out of a hole, somebody was hitting it close. So they were fighters for sure.”
For the afternoon quarterfinals, Loflin changed his socks and Williams took a quick shower in the locker room to recharge his body. It was another tussle with neither side holding more than a one-hole advantage the entire match. Williams, who won the Cabo Collegiate earlier this spring for the top-rated Commodores, finally gave the side the lead for good with a birdie on No. 17.
“We played a lot of junior golf with them and been friends with those two guys for a long time,” said Loflin, who is headed to Scottsdale, Ariz., after the Four-Ball to serve as the substitute player for Georgia in the NCAA Championships. “It was fun get to go play them, but obviously also knew that we had to play our own good golf or they were going to kill us.”
Kittleson, 34, the runner-up in the 2008 U.S. Amateur, put on a show over the final seven holes of the quarterfinals before it was eventually suspended.
Trailing 3 down at the turn, Kittleson birdied No. 10, then hit a laser 4-iron on the par-3 13th hole to set up an 8-foot birdie. Two holes later on the 532-yard, par-5, his 2-iron from 240 yards stopped 15 feet from the flagstick. A two-putt birdie tied the match. And he would add another birdie on the par-3 16th to give him and Stoltz, a Sirius/XM Radio personality who hosts a show on PGA Tour Radio with two-time USGA champion Colt Knost, a 1-up lead as darkness began to envelop the property.
Kittleson had a golden chance to close out the match on No. 17, launching a 300-plus drive into the wind over the corner of a penalty area to the fringe, but he three-putted for par, and the sides tied the hole.
“Honestly, I played amazing on that back nine,” said Kittleson. “I don’t know how I could play any better.”
The championship concludes on Wednesday with the first of two semifinal matches commencing at 7 a.m., followed by the second semifinal at 7:30 a.m. The 18-hole championship match is scheduled for 1 p.m.
“It's something that crossed my mind because Wednesday evening we would have to leave [for NCAAs]. But thinking of how people on the [PGA] Tour, you know, play week to week, it's also a good preparation for that.” – Sampson Zheng when asked if he and Aaron Du would have competed this week had Cal qualified for NCAAs
“There are no ducks out here. Everybody is playing good golf at this stage.” – Carter Loflin on the four sides remaining
“We knew each other before college. We went to the same swing coach (John Wilkinson). But our game's complement one another so well. I'm not going pro. I work now and play as much as I can, so I try and make birdies and a few doubles and hopefully he picks me up when I have my bad holes.” – Bryce Haney on his partnership with ex-Wright State teammate Tyler Goecke
“It was a great match. There were a gazillion birdies, especially considering the [windy] conditions.” – Drew Kittleson after he and partner Drew Stoltz won their Round-of-16 match in 22 holes.
“I’m feeling worn out. Feels like it’s nighttime and I’m about to do another one. It’s a grind of a day.” – Stoltz on playing a second match on Tuesday after going 22 holes in the Round of 16
“We didn’t actually see it go in, but by everyone’s reactions, I thought no way. But it went in.” – Maxwell Lange on his hole-in-one
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jonathan Coe, the USGA’s senior manager, championship communications, contributed to this report.