By Dave Shedloski
||Next up for Peter Uihlein is Charlie Holland (above), who has come from behind in every match this week. (John Mummert/USGA)
Tulsa, Okla. – Peter Uihlein’s golf season turned around in April when his coach at Oklahoma State University, Mike McGraw, sent him to compete in an NAIA event.
“It was a wake-up call for sure,” said Uihlein, who had been struggling for much of his freshman year. “But I hadn’t been playing anywhere, so I was just glad to go out and play.”
Uihlein won that tournament, the Gaillardia Intercollegiate, an NAIA event hosted by Oklahoma City University. His game has been A-OK ever since.
That he proved Thursday at the 109th U.S. Amateur with a pair of victories at Southern Hills Country Club to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in his three appearances in the country’s oldest national championship.
Calling on a cool demeanor and a clutch putter Uihlein, 19, of Orlando, Fla., eliminated Connor Arendell, of Cape Coral, Fla., 2 and 1. Earlier in the day, Uihlein defeated Connor Driscoll of Encinitas, Calif., by the same margin.
Uihlein’s bright day under overcast skies set up a quarterfinal match against Charlie Holland of Dallas, Texas, who before he defeated Christopher Ross of Canada, 2 and 1, eliminated medalist Tim Jackson, 1 up. Jackson, 50, of Germantown, Tenn., had been the oldest medalist in championship history.
Uihlein, who later in the spring finished runner-up in the NCAA Division I Regional Tournament, played like a wily old veteran in his match with Arendell, taking advantage of his opponent’s early mistakes and managing his game well when his lead was threatened. “I didn’t do that much, really,” Uihlein said. “I just played steady.”
At Southern Hills, playing steady means plenty. Uihlein, with two pars and a bogey, earned a 3-up lead after three as Arendell fought his driver. A short birdie at the 10th restored that advantage after he mucked the ninth.
Arendell wouldn’t fold, however. A 7-iron set up a 3-foot birdie at the short 11th, and he won the 12th with a conceded birdie after Uihlein missed a 12-foot par attempt. “I started really slow, but I was coming around and was feeling better about my chances,” Arendell said. “I just didn’t hit it good enough, and he made a couple of solid plays down the stretch.”
The first of those came at the 13th, when Uihlein hooked his approach on the par-5 left of the green and under a tree. He managed to scrape it onto the back edge and then drained the downhiller from 15 feet to go 2 up.
He missed the green at the next and lost with a bogey, but saved par from a fairway bunker at the 15th. At 16, after a wayward drive and a chip out to the front of the green, Uihlein played a gorgeous pitch and run to about 4 feet. When he drained the left-to-right breaker to halve the hole, he celebrated with a Tiger Woods-like fist pump.
“That was a huge putt,” said Uihlein, whose summer has included fourth at the Porter Cup and sixth at the Southern Am. “My short game really was the key to both matches. I think psychologically it was really a boost for me and it probably was a little frustrating for him because he was starting to make a run and play some good golf.”
The match ended with Uihlein not even having to putt. Arendell bladed his second shot from 65 yards over the green, and he couldn’t get his third to stay on the putting surface either. With Uihlein just 8 feet away in two, Arendell conceded the hole and the match.
Uihlein not only was stoked about reaching the quarterfinals, but he was pleased to be “back in the mix,” for perhaps making the USA Walker Cup team. “It’s in the back of my mind,” he admitted.
He keeps this up and it will be in front of him on his travel schedule.
Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on www.usamateur.org.