Irish Eyes Smiling: McClean Beats Countryman Foley for U.S. Mid-Amateur Title
The winner of the 41st U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship was … the Republic of Ireland.
This island nation of 5.1 million (7 million when you count Northern Ireland) was going to produce its first champion in a USGA amateur competition no matter who prevailed in the 36-hole championship match, which concluded on Saturday – 1½ days later than expected – with 29-year-old optometrist Matthew McClean, of Belfast, holding the Robert T. Jones Memorial Trophy, thanks to a 3-and-1 victory over countryman and close friend Hugh Foley, 25, of Dublin.
With the victory also comes the spoils. McClean now is exempt into the 2023 U.S. Open at The Los Angeles (Calif.) Country Club and will receive a likely invitation to next April’s Masters Tournament. He also is the second USGA champion of 2022 from Ireland, following Padraig Harrington, who claimed the U.S. Senior Open in June at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa. Northern Ireland natives Graeme McDowell (2010) and Rory McIlroy (2011) won U.S. Open titles in consecutive years. They were only the second and third players from Ireland to even reach a USGA final, following Valerie Hassett in 1998 (U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur).
“Yeah, fantastic,” said McClean, who celebrated the victory with his caddie Jack Enea and girlfriend Kate Jones. “Sort of probably hasn't sunk in just yet. It's been a very long week, but I'm sure once we sort of sit down this evening, it'll sort of sink in a wee bit more, but yeah, it's unbelievable really.”
Since Sept. 5 when the two departed Dublin on a trans-Atlantic flight to Chicago, McClean and Foley have been inseparable, sharing rental cars and private housing as well as playing together in practice rounds preparing for their first USGA championship experiences. For the past week, they’ve stayed at the home of Colgate, Wis., resident Dan Benedum, who wound up serving as Foley’s caddie. Enea got on McClean’s bag through Benedum, with whom he plays golf at Ozaukee Country Club in Mequon.
But when both advanced to the championship match on Friday, the social chatter was put on hold as they battled to see which of them would become the second international champion in U.S. Mid-Amateur history. Lukas Michel, of Australia, won in 2019. McClean and Foley shared a steak dinner on Friday night following the first 18 holes of the championship match, which McClean led, 2 up.
McClean, No. 120 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking®/WAGR®, and Foley, No. 195 in the WAGR, wanted a strong result this week to bolster their chances of representing Great Britain and Ireland in next September’s Walker Cup Match on the Old Course at St. Andrews.
McClean already has had a head start in that quest, representing GB&I in the 2022 St. Andrews Trophy competition against Continental Europe and competing for Ireland in the recently completed World Amateur Team Championship in France (team tied for 19th). McClean also posted strong finishes in a pair of prestigious amateur competitions in England: the Brabazon Trophy (third) and Lytham Trophy (tied for sixth), and he lost in a playoff at the Irish Open Amateur, a stroke-play event.
Foley was hoping the 12-plus-hour break between rounds would give him a chance to reset for the second 18 of the final, but he struggled through the first six holes, making bogeys on Nos. 19 (hole was tied), 20 and 24 to fall 4 down. A 50-degree wedge from 110 yards at the par-5 25th set up a winning birdie, but he didn’t win another hole until the 31st, which started a string of three consecutive birdies to tighten what was turning into a McClean rout.
He did have a bizarre occurrence on the par-3 27th hole when his bunker shot flew into a sprinkler head and never bounced out. He received a free drop but faced a 35-footer for par rather than a much shorter putt. The bogey put McClean 4 up.
McClean holed an 8-footer for birdie on the par-4 30th to increase his margin to 5 up with six to play, only to see his close friend hit some marvelous shots on the next three holes. Foley’s tee shot on the par-3 31st stopped 7 feet short of the hole, and his exquisite pitch from below the green on the par-5 32nd was perfectly executed as he used the slope behind the green to sling his ball to 18 inches. Then on the 369-yard 33rd hole, Foley’s approach stopped 9 feet from the flagstick, and he calmly converted to cut the deficit to 2 down.
“It was hard to sort of hang in there, but I didn't really do a huge amount wrong,” said McClean. “I just sort of felt if I kept on doing what I was doing, hopefully he wouldn't birdie the last six holes against me. That was the plan, and thankfully it worked out in the end.”
McClean thought he won on the par-3 34th hole as his 30-foot putt caught the left edge and spun out. It was only a momentary delay in his crowning achievement. He reached the 35th hole with a brilliant 7-iron approach, and when Foley missed the green from the right rough and failed to get up and down from thick greenside rough, the match was over.
“I made a late charge there, decent back nine,” said Foley, who became the first player since Darren Clarke in 1990 to win the North of Ireland and South of Ireland amateur championships. “I thought maybe 3- or 4-under back nine might have a chance, but he held on great. That birdie on 12 was really, really good. Almost put the nail in the coffin. That's when I had a little bit of a run and freed up. But he held up great with those pars there at the finish. He deserved it today.”
“It's going to take a wee bit of time [to sink in]. I think there's going to be a good few Irish players in [the U.S. Open and Masters] next year, so can't wait to sort of get the invite to [Augusta]. It will be a tough week, but hopefully if I can play well, we'll just sort of enjoy it and see how it goes. We actually got a message from Shane Lowry last night, as well, who just won [the BMW PGA Championship at] Wentworth. At least there's one more Irish guy in the Masters [and U.S. Open] next year guaranteed. Just thankfully it's me going there.” – Matthew McClean
“Hugh has played unbelievable golf this year. For the past three months he's probably been the best player in Ireland comfortably. So … this is still obviously a very, very good week.” – McClean
“It's probably in a way who I wanted to play in the final, but at the same time it's not the person you want to lose in the final, as well.” – McClean on beating his good friend
“No, I think it doesn't make any difference, really. You just want to win no matter who you're playing. We played a great game, fair game. But you're always trying to just win the match, win the championship. Matt did that. Doesn't feel any different.” – Hugh Foley when asked if it stings more losing to a good friend versus another competitor
“I felt like I got a few bad breaks, but that's all right, I've had a lot of good breaks this year, including a couple against Matt and a couple against other guys. Matt deserves it. It's golf. Eventually it comes back, and to get here was pretty special. I didn't feel like I deserved it today, but I gave it a go.” – Foley on his bad luck on the 27th hole
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com. Brian DePasquale, a senior manager of championship communications, contributed to the article.