PINEHURST, N.C. — Texas sophomore Cole Hammer enters this week’s U.S. Amateur after a dramatic close call in last year’s semifinals.
The 19-year-old from Houston was co-medalist in the stroke-play portion of this championship last year at Pebble Beach — the first two days of seven total — and won four matches to get to the semifinals against eventual winner Viktor Hovland.
Hovland and Hammer battled fiercely through the back nine, with a spot in the final and an automatic invitation to the 2019 Masters on the line, until Hovland closed Hammer out on the 16th hole to win 3 and 2.
“I’m not going to lie; it sucked to get all the way to the semifinals and be so close to lifting the national championship trophy. But honestly, I think it’s kind of given me motivation to come back stronger after that,” Hammer said.
He is well aware of this championship’s place in the game.
“It’s obviously the biggest amateur tournament in the world, and last year was just a tough way to finish. But I had a great week and played great against Viktor. He ended up getting the best of me in the end. It was a fun run last year, and I’m just looking forward to it again this week.”
Would the UT standout change anything about his strategy in that semifinal?
“My match-play strategy was working last year with fairways and greens and just trying to be in every hole,” Hammer said. “That worked last year — I think I was 18 or 19 and 1 in match play — so I had a great record, and I feel it’s worked well for me. So I’m not going to change anything — that’s for sure.”
The venue this week is famed Pinehurst. Its No. 2 course hosted the U.S. Open in 1999 (Payne Stewart’s emotional win), 2005 and 2014. The No. 2 and No. 4 courses will host stroke play Monday and Tuesday, and the field will be cut from 312 to 64. Wednesday through Sunday, match play will all be on No. 2.
Hammer has seen these courses once, at age 12 during the 2012 U.S. Kids World Championships. He played No. 4 during the event and couldn’t help but squeeze in a round the day after the championship on the more famous No. 2.
“This place is really cool,” Hammer said. “No. 2 is going to be a really tough course this week. If I can get around there at even par that should be a really good score.”
A big reason is the famous greens that are sculpted like upside-down bowls; it makes for a challenge and demands a good short game.
Hammer enters this tournament No. 1 in the world amateur rankings.
When asked about his freshman highlights at UT, the young star had a bright outlook.
“We did well all year; we just didn’t really come back with a win. We had a bunch of seconds and thirds,” Hammer said. “I would say that winning regionals for us was huge, and then going into NCAAs we had a lot of momentum and we were able to capitalize on that.”
The Longhorns got all the way to the final in Fayetteville, Ark., before falling to Stanford.
“We had a lot of great finishes to tournaments, it seemed like, and the season just sort of built on itself, and we’re excited for this next year,” he said.
Hammer said there are a lot of freshmen with upside in this next class, and he’s especially proud of the rapport he’s strengthened even more with roommates and teammates Pierceson and Parker Coody and Will Thomson.
And by the way, all four roommates are representing the Horns in the tournament this week.
What are those odds, right?
“It’s cool that we all have the opportunity to represent the burnt orange colors for Texas in this national championship this week,” Hammer said. “During the season we were able to lean on each other during tournaments. They are great guys to be around.”
Hammer said they’ve collectively helped the team be more cohesive in different aspects of golf and campus life.
Hammer has added 10 pounds in the past year and a half since he’s been working with former Horn Jordan Spieth’s strength coach, Troy Van Biezen.
“It’s building strength from the ground up,” Hammer said. “Stronger legs (have been a focus), and it’s just given me a better base for my golf swing. It’s been instrumental.”
Van Biezen was introduced to Hammer by another member of Spieth’s team, Cameron McCormick.
The Australian coach based out of Trinity Forest has been working with Hammer for four years, and Hammer appreciates the wisdom McCormick brings.
“He’s been huge for my game,” Hammer said, “It’s been an awesome time so far, and he’s helped my game a ton.”
Another key member of Hammer’s team has been UT men’s golf coach John Fields, who Hammer says has helped his overall strategy.
“He’s helped me, not really physically or mentally, but strategically,” Hammer said. “Going into tournaments with (good) preparation, he’s given me good tidbits there. He’s been instrumental, and I knew he would be when I committed to Texas.”
That happened in the eighth grade.
Cole beat his dad, Gregg, a scratch golfer himself, from the tips for the first time at their club, River Oaks in Houston, during that same time, when Cole was 14.
One year later he would tee it up in the U.S. Open as the third youngest in history, with Gregg on the bag.
When Cole and his father tee it up now, Cole gives Pops three shots each nine holes.
“But it’s not even any fun for him to beat me now,” Gregg said with a laugh.
But this week at Pinehurst? Might be another story for Cole in the U.S. Amateur.