Booking a West Coast Trip

Steve Irwin, UNC's Li Chen, CSU's AJ Ott qualify at Fort Collins CC for U.S. Amateur

by Gary Baines - 7/13/2017

In 2016 and '17, a dozen players have qualified in Colorado for the U.S. Amateur. Eleven of the 12 have been college age or younger.

Then there's Steve Irwin.

On Thursday, the 42-year-old from Arvada and Lakewood Country Club struck a blow for the slightly older set by punching his ticket to the U.S. Am -- and for the second time in three years, no less.

At Fort Collins Country Club, Irwin joined two Coloradans who play their college golf in the Centennial State, Li Chen of Broomfield and AJ Ott of Fort Collins, in advancing to the national amateur championship. (The qualifiers are pictured, from left, Ott, Irwin and Chen.)

Irwin, son of three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin, earned his third trip to the U.S. Am by shooting rounds of 67-74 for a 1-over-par 141 total. It marked his second time in three years qualifying at Fort Collins CC. ("I may need to join up here. This course has been good to me," he said.) Irwin also competed in the championship in 2011, when he was exempt after playing in that year's U.S. Open.

"This will be No. 3. I'm pretty proud of that -- especially at 42," he said. "I've always thought the U.S. Amateur is one of the hardest tournaments to qualify for. There's so many guys and so many great players -- a lot of young guys that are playing every day. When you're only taking two, maybe three, guys (at a given qualifying site), it's always been one of those harder ones for me to qualify for. Now to do it a little later in my career -- and also with all the other things I've got going in my life, it feels pretty good."

Irwin (below), a former CGA Player of the Year and University of Colorado golfer who currently serves on the CGA Board of Governors, made six birdies and seven bogeys over the 36 holes. He got up and down from in front of the green on his final hole to avoid a playoff.

The reward is a trip to a USGA championship for the 13th time, by his reckoning. Give or take, there's been one U.S. Junior Amateur, three USGA State Teams, five U.S. Mid-Amateurs, the U.S. Open, and now his third U.S. Amateur.

And this time around, he qualified despite playing much less golf than usual in the first half of the year.

"Golf most definitely has not been the focus this year. It hasn't even been in the top five," said Irwin, a guiding force -- along with his dad -- behind Hale Irwin Golf Services and Irwin Golf Management. "I've been busy with work, and been involved in an exciting new business venture. We're getting ready to merge with another company, so I've been focused on that. Golf has been one of those things where I might go out for 20 minutes a couple nights a week and that's about it. I don't want to say it's a surprise (to qualify) but it's gratifying to know that when I focus on it for a little bit, I can still play a little bit.

"When you get on the golf course, your mind frees up a little, which happened in the first round today. The second round I was holding on for dear life. My swing felt like an unfolding lawn chair and I couldn't make a putt. Other than that it was a good round."

In all, 81 players teed it up Thursday for three spots in the U.S. Amateur, which is set for Aug. 14-20 at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Coincidentally, one of Hale Irwin's 20 PGA Tour wins came at Riviera, in the 1976 Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open.

While this will be U.S. Am No. 3 for Steve Irwin, it will be the first for both Chen, a junior-to-be at UNC, and Ott, a sophomore at CSU.

Chen, twice a runner-up in the 5A state high school tournament when he played at Legacy, earned medalist honors on Thursday. He made seven birdies -- including two runs of three straight -- in a round of 5-under-par 65 in the morning, then carded a 72 in the afternoon for a 3-under 137 total. The 65 marked Chen's best score ever for a round. He noted that he felt comfortable at Fort Collins CC after finishing 21st individually there at the Ram Masters Invitational college tournament last September.

"It was a great round this morning, but after the round I tried not to think about it as much," said the 20-year-old, who's the son of Windy He, a highly-regarded Colorado rules official. "Everybody knows on 36-hole days, you can shoot 65-85 pretty easy. I tried focus on the next round."

Not only did Chen earn his first trip to a U.S. Amateur, but it'll be his first USGA championship of any sort.

"To be honest, I don't even know when and where (the 2017 U.S. Amateur) is," he said. "But it'll be a great experience. It shows me that over the last two years playing college, I've improved my game. It's a great step up and a confidence boost to know I have the ability and skills to make it into a tournament of that size and level."

Ott, who's lived his entire life in Fort Collins, is very familiar with Fort Collins CC as CSU practices and qualifies for college tournaments there quite often and hosts the Ram Masters Invitational there each September. Ott figures he's played the course roughly 50 times, and he used that course knowledge to record rounds of 71-70 to tie Irwin for second place at 141. Ott made three birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey on the day.

"(This course) has probably been my second home this year just being at CSU," said the 19-year-old, who was the Junior Golf Alliance of Colorado's boys player of the year in 2016. "The Ram Masters is set up pretty similar to how they set this up.

"I had to qualify for just about every (college) event, so I was used to hitting the shots around here. I learned a lot this first year about the kind of shots to play on this course and I knew it would culminate with this tournament because this is a big one to get in. It's definitely an advantage being here at home."

It will be the second USGA championship for Ott, who competed in the 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur.

"It means a lot" to qualify for the U.S. Am, he said. "It's something I've wanted to get in since I started playing when I was little. It's going to be fun."

Davis Bryant of Aurora, who won the Colorado Junior Amateur on Wednesday, was on pace to earn a U.S. Am berth, but an errant tee shot on his 36th hole led to a double bogey and he missed by one stroke at 142. He'll be the first alternate.

Jackson Solem of Longmont, like Bryant a 2017 U.S. Junior Amateur qualifier, landed the second alternate position at 143. The former 4A state high school champion made two triple bogeys in his morning round of 73.

Last week, three other players qualified at Columbine Country Club for the U.S. Amateur. Jake Staiano of Cherry Hills Village was joined in advancing by incoming CSU golfer Parathakorn Suyasri and UCLA player Cole Madey. Like Ott, Staiano is a CSU golfer.

Earlier this week, former University of Colorado golfer Kenny Coakley qualified in Morton, Minn., for the U.S. Amateur. The Phoenix resident earned medalist honors at that qualifying site.

Coloradan Kyler Dunkle, who qualified at Fort Collins Country Club for the 2016 U.S. Am, where he advanced to the round of 16, will be competing at a Monday (July 17) qualifying tournament in Highland, Utah. Dunkle plays for the University of Utah.

U.S. Amateur Qualifying
At Par-70 Fort Collins CC

Li Chen, Broomfield 65-72--137
Steve Irwin, Arvada 67-74--141
AJ Ott, Fort Collins 71-70--141
Davis Bryant, Aurora 71-71--142
Jackson Solem, Longmont 73-70--143

For complete results, CLICK HERE.


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