Texas’ Cole Hammer, a junior golfer for the Longhorns, will tee off at the U.S. Open on Thursday as the No. 1-ranked amateur player. He has played in one other Open before, as a 15-year-old in 2015. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman)

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: This time, Texas’ Cole Hammer aims to nail his U.S. Open performance

Posted September 16th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • Now he’s barely turned 21, and he’s about to measure his considerable golf skills against the best in the world for the game’s second major of this upside-down season that has the U.S. Open in September instead of June.
  • What exactly is his confidence level? “That’s a good question,” Hammer said . “On a scale of one to 10, probably a 9. I’m hitting it really well.”
  • And now that he’s there does he think he can win? “I honestly do,” he said.

Cole Hammer admitted he’s having a blast.

“It’s been a fun week so far,” he said Tuesday afternoon.

Yeah, so far.

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Up until now, Hammer has been touring the scene at Winged Foot Golf Course without pressure. He’s played several rounds of golf on the diabolical West Course since he arrived last Friday and never even once kept track of his score. He’s practiced with friends like former Longhorn Jordan Spieth and Alabama product Davis Riley as well as a couple of Georgia Tech grads Andy Ogletree and Matt Kuchar.

On Thursday, the grind begins. So does the scoring.

For Hammer, it will mark his second crack at a U.S. Open. He played his first at age 15 when, heck, he was still wearing braces. Missing the cut was hardly embarrassing.

He has played in another PGA event in his hometown, tying for 61st at the Houston Open last October on a course a half-hour from his parents’ home in River Oaks.

The stakes have gone up.

Cole Hammer of UT, who tied for medalist honors at the NCAA regional as a freshman, is in the U.S. Open for the second time in his career. (Jay Janner/American-Statesman)

Now he’s barely turned 21, and as a qualifier as the world’s top amateur, he’s about to measure his considerable skills against the best golfers in the world for the game’s second major of this upside-down season that has the U.S. Open in September instead of June. And he knows that Winged Foot, with its gnarly rough and deep green-side bunkers, will take no prisoners.

“I played the U.S. Open, but it was a different golf course at Chamber Bay,” Hammer said of the site of the 2015 Open that Spieth won when he was 21, the second of his three majors. “The general consensus is this is a quintessential U.S. Open. The greens are really firm, the fairways are nice and the rough is wicked. I mean, insane. When I played in my first Open, I was pretty overwhelmed.”

Who wouldn’t be at 15? So how does a junior at Texas approach his second major championship, this time as the world’s top-ranked amateur? What exactly is his confidence level?

“That’s a good question,” he said. “On a scale of 1 to 10, probably a 9. I’m hitting it really well.”

“His short game is almost as good as anybody around,” UT golf coach John Fields said of Cole Hammer. “I’ve seem some of the best in the world, and his short game is spectacular. If he strikes the ball well and hits a lot of fairways, he’ll be ultra competitive. I’ve told him. No matter what happens this week, you’re going to get better.” (Jay Janner/American-Statesman)

He’s played quite a bit this summer in five amateur tournaments, including a 17th-place finish in the Western Amateur that UT teammate Pierceson Coody won. Hammer was 21st at the Sunnehanna Amateur where Longhorn Travis Vick was the runner-up, and he tied for 36th at the North and South Amateur at Pinehurst where Vick was 17th.

He missed far too many fairways at the Houston Open to contend. Consequently, his talented short game never came to the fore, and the extremely narrow fairways at Winged Foot are even more punitive.

“Cole strikes the ball well,” said Longhorns coach John Fields. “His short game is almost as good as anybody around. I’ve seem some of the best in the world, and his short game is spectacular. If he strikes the ball well and hits a lot of fairways, he’ll be ultra competitive.

“I’ve told him. No matter what happens this week, you’re going to get better.”

Texas’ Cole Hammer hits a tee shot during the 2019 Valspar Collegiate Invitational  in Palm City, Fla. (Scott Halleran/The Associated Press)

Fields realizes the games of Hammer and PGA rookie sensation Scottie Scheffler are different. But he can sense the same competitive drive in both.

“With them,” Fields said, “it’s like driving a stake through their heart when they don’t achieve what they believe they can.”

Hammer played nine holes in a practice round with Spieth on Monday. He didn’t ask for advice, partly because his fellow Longhorn has his own troubles to work through. Spieth hadn’t won a tournament of any kind in the 70 events since his last victory in the 2017 British Open and is struggling to recover the form that made him the hottest golfer in the world before he was 24.

In the 10 events since golf’s restart, Spieth doesn’t have a better showing than 10th place, which came in the first tournament, the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial.

“When we played yesterday, we were just kind of joking around,” said Hammer, whose dad, Gregg, is part of his entourage as his unofficial swing coach even though mom Allison had to stay home. “I haven’t really picked his brain.”

Dustin Johnson looms as the big favorite along with Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas, but I’ll pick Xander Schauffele to win with Tommy Fleetwood my second pick.

Scheffler won’t win because he had to bow out of the competition when he became just the second golfer on Tour to test positive for COVID-19 and withdrew from the U.S. Open.

Scheffler contended for the PGA Championship before finishing in a tie for fourth. He advanced to the Tour Championship, one of just two rookies to do so, and finished in a tie for fifth in the FedEx Cup standings. And most recently the 24-year-old Dallasite won PGA Tour rookie of the year honors and the accompanying Arnold Palmer Award as voted by his peers on the Tour.

“No question, I feel bad for him,” Hammer said. “That’s really brutal. He’s had an incredible year, though, and I’m super happy for him. He’s an amazing talent, and he gives me confidence that one day I can do the same thing.”

He’d love it if one day could be this weekend. Those are the kinds of expectations that await Hammer, who has told Fields he plans to stay at Texas and graduate. He knows he’ll be nervous when he tees off at 2 p.m. Austin time on Thursday, joining a threesome with Sweden’s Alex Noren and former Vanderbilt golfer Matthias Schwab.

That shouldn’t be considered a weakness but more great anticipation for what’s possible.

He told Fields the very same thing before he teed off in last year’s NCAA Championships where Hammer won big in the quarterfinals and semifinals and smoked Oklahoma State’s Matthew Wolff in the latter before Texas faltered against Stanford in the finals.

Pressure?

“I will, for sure,” Hammer said. “I’m sure I will be nervous. It’s a major championship. This is where I want to be”

And now that he’s there, does he think he can win?

“I honestly do,” he said. “If you’re not playing to win, you might as well go home. That sounds cocky, but it’s not. I just want to allow myself to play my best.”

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