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 hole.
"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 golf course.
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 wild week.
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-l 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.