OAKMONT, Pa. (AP) — Even for James Piot, the scrappy Michigan kid who isn’t afraid to set the bar high, his target Sunday in the U.S. Amateur was bordering on audacious.
He was 3 down and running out of time.
Standing on the 10th tee, Piot set a goal of playing the back nine at 4-under par. This was at Oakmont, as fearsome as any course in America, where the greens reputed to be the fastest in the land had been triple cut. More holes were won with pars than birdies.
Piot was up to the task. Starting with a 9-iron to 3 feet for birdie, he won four straight holes to take the lead over Austin Greaser and closed out his stunning rally with a 20-foot par putt that sent him to a 2-and-1 victory.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” Piot said. “As an amateur, it’s the best thing you can do.”
Piot didn’t win a hole on the front nine in the afternoon. He didn’t lose a hole on the back nine, even if he fell just short of his goal. He was 3 under on the back.
The match ended on the reachable par-4 17th when Piot blasted out of a bunker across the slick green and into another bunker, got that out to 20 feet and made it for par. Greaser’s 8-foot birdie putt to extend the match spun out of the left lip.
“I just didn’t execute on the back nine,” Greaser said. “He did. Hats off to him, he played a great back nine. The cards fell his way this time. It’s going to sting a little bit.”
Piot, a 22-year-old senior at Michigan State, was mobbed by friends and teammates in their Spartans gear off the green and before long he was holding the gold Havemeyer Trophy.
He appeared to be gazing at a century-old list of champions from Bobby Jones to Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods. Turns out that wasn’t the case at all.
“I was trying to see if it was real or not,” Piot said. “I couldn’t believe it. I honestly was like, ‘Did I just win the U.S. Am?’ I probably couldn’t tell you one name right now on that thing. That’s how crazy it was and how unbelievable it felt.”
Groomed on a public course in Michigan called Fox Hills Golf and Banquet Center, he learned to battle by spending all day at the course with friends making up money games to play, either for lunch for each other’s golf balls.
When he arrived at Michigan State and his coach encouraged Piot to strive to be All-Big Ten, Piot thought told that was setting the bar too low. He wanted to be All-American.
And now he’s a U.S. Amateur champion.
It was a tough loss for Greaser, a junior at North Carolina. Trailing 1 down after the morning 18 holes, he won three of the opening four holes in the afternoon, followed by a pair of tough par putts to stay in front.
With a par to win the ninth, he went 3 up and looked tough to beat.
Piot took it from there. His birdie on No. 10 was his first since he hit 6-iron to 3 feet on the 18th in the morning round to take a 1-up lead into lunch. And then he got some help from Greaser.
Both had 15-foot birdie putts on the 11th. Greaser ran his 6 feet by and three-putted to lose another hole. On the par-5 12th, Grease hit 3-iron too far left into a bunker some 20 yards short of the green. He could only get out to the front of the green, leaving him a 70-foot putt that didn’t stop rolling until it was 20 feet away.
He three-putted — his seventh of the championship match — and it was back to all square.
“I just felt like from there, all the momentum was on my side,” Piot said.
Piot won his fourth straight hole and took the lead with a tee shot on the par-3 13th to 10 feet for a conceded birdie when Greaser found a bunker and failed to convert a 12-footer par putt.
The final blow was the 15th, when Greaser hit into the “church pew” bunkers down the left side, had to lay up and hit wedge that didn’t quite clear a subtle ridge, and the speed and slope of Oakmont’s notorious greens sent the ball 20 feet away for another bogey.
“It really stinks to come up just a hair short,” Greaser said. “But there were a lot of kids that probably wished they were standing where I was today, and I’m going to try and remember that and know that I played my heart out and gave my best.”
The victory puts Piot into the three professional majors next year — the Masters, the U.S. Open at Brookline and the British Open at St. Andrews.
Greaser gets into the Masters and the U.S. Open as the runner-up.
“I still don’t believe I’m holding this trophy right now,” Piot said. “Internally, I thought I had the ability to do it. To actually do it is the greatest thing ever.”