By David Shefter, USGA
ANDOVER, Kan. – Noah Goodwin, 17, of Corinth, Texas, produced the second-biggest comeback in championship-match history, rallying from four holes down with eight to play to defeat Matthew Wolff, 18, of Agoura Hills, Calif., 1 up, to win the 70th U.S. Junior Amateur Championship on a blistering-hot Saturday at Flint Hills National Golf Club.
The only larger comeback occurred two years ago when Phillip Barbaree defeated Andrew Orischak in 37 holes at Colleton River Plantation Club after trailing by five holes with eight to play. Andy Hyeon Bo Shim, in 2012 at The Golf Club of New England, also rallied from 5 down at the start of the afternoon 18 in beating 2010 champion Jim Liu, 4 and 3. The USGA lengthened the U.S. Junior Amateur final from 18 holes to 36 in 2005.
“It’s definitely the highest by far,” said Goodwin of his career accomplishments, which includes being named the 2016 American Junior Golf Association Player of the Year. “It’s every junior’s dream to win the U.S. Junior. It’s the most prestigious junior event in the entire world. Everybody knows about it, and to add my name among the greats like [2015 U.S. Open champion] Jordan Spieth and [nine-time USGA champion] Tiger Woods just means everything to me.”
His victory also was a bit sweeter after becoming the first competitor in 34 years to claim the title a year after losing in the final match. Three-hundred and sixty-four days ago at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn., Goodwin lost to Min Woo Lee, of Australia, 2 and 1, but now he has joined Mason Rudolph (1950) and Tim Straub (1983) as the only other golfers to win a U.S. Junior Amateur a year after losing in the championship match. He was the sixth competitor to reach a championship match in consecutive years, a list that includes Woods, Eddie Pearce and Davis Riley, who dropped back-to-back finals in 2013 and 2014.
“I'm excited for him,” said Straub, the head men’s golf coach at Davidson College, by phone. “That's really neat. When I did it, it was pretty rare then, too. Now, you have such a short span to play in the U.S. Junior. It's a pretty amazing accomplishment, especially in today's game with all the great junior talent out there.”
Goodwin, competing in his fourth U.S. Junior, also became the seventh Texas native since 1999 to hoist the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship Trophy, joining PGA Tour winners Hunter Mahan (1999) and Spieth (2009, 2011), as well as Matthew Rosenfeld (2000), Cory Whitsett (2007), Scottie Scheffler (2013) and Will Zalatoris (2014).
When he finally got to his phone after the prize ceremony, several congratulatory text messages were waiting, including one from his instructor Cameron McCormick, the same pro who has worked with past Junior Amateur champions Spieth, Barbaree and Zalatoris.
“That just means a lot,” said Goodwin. “He’s done so much for my game. I can’t really express my gratitude for Cameron. I wouldn’t be where I am without him.”
Wolff, an incoming freshman at Oklahoma State University, was vying to become the first 18-year-old champion in the competition’s 70-year history. During last year’s championship, the USGA announced it was raising the maximum age from 17 to 18 beginning in 2017, and nearly one-third of the field at Flint Hills (51 of 156) was comprised of 18-year-olds.
But after taking a 4-up lead with a 7-foot birdie putt on the par-3 28th hole, things began to unravel for Wolff in the searing heat. It was the fourth consecutive day the mercury reached 100 degrees or more, and the heat index on Saturday was 112.
He short-sided himself with his second shot to the par-5 29th hole, taking two shots to reach the putting surface from gnarly greenside rough. Likely to win the hole with two putts, Goodwin converted his 35-foot birdie putt, just his second of the afternoon 18, to trim his deficit to 3 down.
Wolff then bogeyed three of his next four holes to allow Goodwin to square the match and regain all the momentum. Goodwin took some extra time on the 5-footer he made for par to win the 33rd hole.
Then on the 36th hole, a par 5 with water down the left-hand side and in front of the green, Wolff got a bit aggressive with his line, pulling his drive into the hazard.
Goodwin, who at No. 27 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™ was the highest-ranked player in the field, had already found the fairway with what he called his “best drive of the week,” a 330-yarder that left him with just a 187-yard approach.
Because he was away, Goodwin had to play his second shot first, even though Wolff was playing his third from the tee. He kept to his game plan and went for the green in two, hitting a solid 6-iron to the “fat” part of the putting surface. Wolff managed to reach the green in four shots, but when he failed convert his long par putt, he conceded Goodwin’s 6-foot birdie and the match.
“It’s tough to come out on the bottom, but I played great all week,” said Wolff. “I tied for seventh [in stroke play], and beat a bunch of good players, including my roommate [and medalist Austin Eckroat in the quarterfinals]. Noah just got me at the end.”
When asked if the heat was a factor down the stretch, Wolff responded: “It was hot all week and I was drinking a lot of water. I think it was a little loss of concentration, maybe just got a little tired with my swing. I got a little loose with my swing.”
Goodwin, who is hoping to enroll at Southern Methodist University in January 2018, admitted that he didn’t have his best stuff for the final, shooting the equivalent of 4-over 146 (73-73), with the usual match-play concessions. The two finalists combined for only five birdies – Goodwin had three, one conceded – in the afternoon round.
“There was a lot of grinding,” said Goodwin. “Like I said a lot this week, my game hasn’t been that great coming into [the U.S. Junior Amateur]. I played a couple of decent tournaments, but it just wasn’t really all there like I wanted it to be. So, I really put a lot of work with my coach to get it in the shape that it needed to be.”
Coming into the championship, Goodwin didn’t feel like his game was in peak form, either, but he easily qualified for match play and only trailed during one of 80 holes played before Saturday’s final. He came out firing against Wolff, setting up strong birdie opportunities on his first four holes, but only converted one, a 5-footer on the par-4 third hole. Wolff, No. 252 in the WAGR, answered on No. 6 by driving the green on the 314-yard hole and having his eagle putt eventually conceded. When he won the par-5 11th with a conceded birdie, he never trailed again until the final hole, although Goodwin did trim a 3-down deficit to 1 at the end of the morning round, winning 17 when Wolff’s tee shot found the water hazard, and holing a 10-foot birdie on 18.
The afternoon round started with Wolff’s 5-foot birdie putt doing a 360-degree lip-out. But he went 2 up on the 20th hole with a par after Goodwin had to take an unplayable lie from waist-high rough left of the fairway. A double-bogey 6 by Goodwin on Hole 25 allowed Wolff to push his margin to 3 up before he won the par-3 28th with his second and last birdie.
“I knew it was going to be a hard match from the start, “ said Wolff, who was the runner-up to his former Westlake High teammate Spencer Soosman in the 2014 Polo Golf Classic, the only match-play event on the AJGA circuit. “He just proved why he deserves it. He played great and was so consistent.”
The champion receives a gold medal and custody of the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship Trophy for the next year. He also is exempt into this year’s U.S. Amateur Championship at The Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 14-20. Goodwin is also exempt into the 2018 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links, and receives a three-year exemption into U.S. Open sectional qualifying.
Goodwin also can defend his Junior Amateur title next year at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., but is unsure if he will attempt to do so.
“I’m definitely going to start focusing a lot more on [open] amateur [competitions],” said Goodwin, who has lost in the Round of 64 in each of the last two U.S. Amateurs. “I don’t want to say for sure, but this could be my last individual junior event. I’ll play in the Junior Presidents Cup (in September at Plainfield Country Club), but after that I’m graduating early and trying to get into SMU [in January]. My fingers are still crossed on that if I can get all my school work done.”
The runner-up receives a silver medal, an exemption into next month’s U.S. Amateur and an exemption into 2018 U.S. Open sectional qualifying.
The U.S. Junior Amateur is one of 13 national championships conducted annually by the United States Golf Association, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.