There have been any number of improbable comebacks in the long,
illustrious history of the U.S. Amateur, but on Sunday at
Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., James Driscoll topped
them all. Three down and playing his second shot on the 26th hole
of the final match of the 100th Amateur, Driscoll got tangled up
in tree limbs on his backswing. What followed was the most
stunning turn of events in a week full of unlikely occurrences.
What happened? Nothing and everything. Driscoll whiffed on the
downswing, striking out as if he were Casey at the bat.
Understand, whiffing in front of a couple of buddies in the
privacy of one's home club would be mortifying enough. An air
ball on national TV? With God and Johnny Miller waiting to pass
judgment? Unimaginable. That Driscoll didn't quit the game on the
spot is testament to his courage, and the whiff miraculously
seemed to revive him. He salvaged a bogey and a critical halve on
the hole, thus setting up the best comeback since Glenn Close
popped out of the bathtub near the end of Fatal Attraction.
Still 3 down with three holes to play, to the seemingly
unflappable Arizona State senior, Jeff Quinney, Driscoll stormed
back to force sudden death, and after two extra holes the
melodrama intensified. Incoming lightning and encroaching
darkness forced an overnight suspension of play, a stroke of luck
for the reeling Quinney, who hadn't made a birdie in 21 holes.
Though he has a caricature of a Sun Devil (Arizona State's logo)
on his bag, Quinney seems to have a direct line to a higher
power. Long before Driscoll's heroics, Quinney had been this
Amateur's cardiac kid, starting the 36-hole stroke play
qualifying by going six over in his first seven holes before
rallying to sneak into the 64-man match-play field. In successive
matches, spanning the third round and quarterfinals, Quinney
charged back from 4- and 3-down deficits, and twice during the
final match timely weather delays blunted his opponent's
momentum. When the championship match resumed on a cool, dank
Monday morning, Quinney made the most of yet another second
chance, stepping to the tee of the par-3 3rd hole and cutting a
four-iron to the center of the green. With Driscoll off the green
in two, Quinney stroked a 30-foot birdie putt of such purity he
began his victory dance long before the ball tumbled into the
"It was a great way for it to end, and yes, I'm glad it's over,"
Quinney said before jetting off to Germany to represent the U.S.
at the World Amateur Team Championship, one of the many perks
that come with winning the Amateur. Driscoll displayed nothing
but class in defeat, but clearly he's going to spend the rest of
his days wondering what might have been had the playoff been
consummated on Sunday evening. "I wanted to tell the USGA guys to
step to the side so I could just hit that shot," he said on
Monday. "Last night I was in the groove, I was sweating, the
crowd was really into it. This morning was a different
environment and a different feeling."
The jarring ending was only fitting, for what the final match
lacked in artistry, it more than made up for in drama. This was
exhilarating, sloppy, wonderful golf, and it was historic. The 39
holes needed to sort things out matched the longest Amateur final
in history (alongside Sam Urzetta's win over Frank Stranahan in
1950). That Quinney, 21, is now part of Amateur lore is
remarkable, given that this was his first U.S. Amateur and that
he's a reformed slacker just beginning to come into his own on a
Growing up in Eugene, Ore., Quinney preferred sinking
three-pointers to birdie putts, and as a high school junior he
led his AAU team to the national championship. At 6'1" he had
little future in the game, however, and his raw talent on the
links landed him at Arizona State. It wasn't until the spring of
'99 that Quinney began to ripen, beginning when he shot a
school-record 62--besting Phil Mickelson's old mark by a
stroke--and won Arizona State's Thunderbird tournament with a
record score of 15 under. He had an even more impressive victory
that fall at an alumni event, teaming with Paul Casey to make
three eagles and trounce the team of Mickelson and Larry Barber,
as the undergrads overwhelmed the alums in a cutthroat match that
earned the victors a free dinner. (Mickelson and the other alumni
avenged the loss in a game of eight-on-eight touch football.) As
handsome as a soap opera star, with a preternatural cool and an
unusually mature game, Quinney last week seemed to be the second
coming of Mickelson, who won the Amateur 10 years ago. Whether
Quinney can duplicate Mickelson's success on Tour remains to be
seen, but Quinney displayed the steel of a hardened pro during a
U.S. Amateur Thursday--when the field is trimmed from 32 to 16 to
eight--is one of the most exciting days in golf, a
sunrise-to-sunset march to madness that produces blisters, ulcers
and birdies in equal measure. This time around, four of the day's
matches went to sudden death, including an epic afternoon tussle
between Quinney and Kent State hotshot Ben Curtis that wasn't
decided until the 23rd hole. Curtis, a semifinalist at last
year's Amateur, birdied three of the first seven holes to forge a
4-up lead, and Quinney was still 2 down with two to play. He
roared back to take the final two holes, going birdie-par, and
then survived five cuticle-chewing holes of sudden death, ending
the match with his fifth straight pressure-proof par. Quinney
called this reversal of fortune, "the best comeback of my life,"
although the proclamation was subject to revision less than 24
hours later, after a memorable tussle in the quarters with '99
U.S. Junior champ Hunter Mahan, a Southern Cal freshman bidding
to become the youngest winner in the Amateur's history.
Mahan, a fearless sprite of a kid, won four of the first eight
holes with birdies, and Quinney was still 3 down through 12. At
this point Quinney went on a rampage, winning five straight holes
and closing out the 2-and-1 victory on the 17th hole with a
35-foot birdie putt that had 10 feet of break. Quinney didn't
need a miracle in the semifinals, in which he jumped out to a big
lead over a faltering David Eger, 48, the cocktail-circuit
regular who was trying to become the oldest winner in Amateur
history. Quinney closed out "Mr. Eger," as he referred to his
opponent, 3 and 1.
Driscoll was methodically working his way through the other side
of the draw. In the quarters he out-uglied Jerry Courville one up
and looked overmatched against his semifinal opponent, Luke
Donald, an Englishman who plays for Northwestern. Donald went
into the weekend playing the best golf of the tournament--in 30
holes on super Thursday he had been seven under, not making a
single bogey--but Driscoll had some special mojo working.
A recent Virginia grad, Driscoll is the baby of a sprawling
Irish-Catholic family from Boston, and all six of his older
siblings turned out. They provided more than just cheers,
especially during the Donald match. On the par-5 8th hole
Driscoll blew his drive so deep into the forest that a
search-and-rescue party was formed, and his brother Timmy helped
find the ball, but at a price: He suffered four bee stings.
James, meanwhile, scrambled for a par and a halve to stay one
down, and on the next hole he hit another errant drive. This one
happened to peg another brother, Billy, in the rear. "It stayed
in the first cut," James said. "If it had kept going, I would
have had no shot." He took advantage of the brotherly love by
knocking his approach onto the green and draining a 25-footer to
square the match.
Driscoll rolls up his shirtsleeves like a truck driver, favors
logoed socks and beat-up hats, and putts crosshanded in such an
awkward stance that it seems as if his right arm is in a sling.
But when his mechanical swing is grooved, his game can be a thing
of beauty. He was spot-on down the stretch against Donald,
pouring a nine-iron from 150 yards to within a foot to seal the
2-and-1 victory and propel him into the final. This inspired his
uncle to charter a plane from Boston on Saturday night to import
even more rooters. One estimate had as many as 80 friends and
family members on hand for Sunday's finale, and they made the
crowds at the Ryder Cup look restrained.
Amid all the ruckus Quinney came out in the morning of the final
and played his usual cool, calculating game, hitting 16 greens
and forging a 2-up lead. If Quinney was bothered by the partisan
crowd, he didn't show it. "That's what their plan is, yelling and
trying to get inside my head," he said. "It's all fun--great
Driscoll found his resolve in the aftermath of the whiff, but the
match didn't get interesting until the 35th hole, a 566-yard
par-5. Dormie two, Driscoll played a spectacular approach from a
fairway bunker and, shaking off a miserable day's putting, buried
a big-breaking eight-footer for the birdie that won the hole.
"Chills ran down my spine," he said.
It was a moral victory just to send the match to the 36th hole,
and that seemed certain to be the only victory Driscoll would
taste when he slashed a banana slice into a deep thicket of
trees, his ball settling against a pinecone. Quinney immediately
surrendered the advantage, duck-hooking his drive into the trees.
He could do no better than a two-putt bogey. Driscoll knocked
both his ball and the pinecone into the clear, then followed with
an extraordinarily clutch shot, a pitching wedge from 144 yards
to within five feet. He made the par putt, and for the first time
the match was all square.
For a moment it looked as if Driscoll might take the title on the
first playoff hole when he wedged within gimme range for par.
Quinney was bunkered on the short side of the green, and as he
descended into the maw of the trap, he had the awful realization
for the first time all day that he might lose. "I would never
have forgiven myself," Quinney said. "It would have haunted me
forever." So he played a gorgeous explosion shot, his ball
bouncing off the stick and rattling around the cup before
stopping inches away.
A pair of steady pars on the second playoff hole sent both
players into the night. "What a long night it was," Quinney said.
"I wanted to beat up every pillow on my bed." In the end the
bedding was spared, and so was Quinney's reputation. "Better late
than never," said the new Amateur champ.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Devil of a time Quinney, a senior at Arizona State, barely made it to match play, then triumphed in a record-tying 39-hole final.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Wild thing Driscoll had to hunt for his ball more than once in the final, but had a posse of family and friends to help him.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Eger beaver The 48-year-old Eger, who fell to Quinney in the semis, was gunning to become the oldest winner of the Amateur.
When the playoff was suspended on the 39th tee, Driscoll "wanted
to tell the USGA guys to step to the side so I could just hit
Quinney was unfazed by the pro-Driscoll crowd. "That's what their
plan is," he said, "yelling and trying to get inside my head."