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Top Seeds Power into Semis of 101st Travis Invitational
Surprise! The top three seeds in the championship match play bracket of the Travis Invitational all advanced to the semi-finals of the 101st playing of the Grand Old Amateur. Nick Gilliam, Steve White, and Hans Albertsson, stroke play co-medalists and the 1-2-3 seeds respectively, won morning and afternoon matches to advance to Sunday morning's semi-finals. They were joined by party-crasher Kevin Gai, the 13th seed, who will face Gilliam in one match. White and Albertsson will lock horns in the other.
The result is stunning, as the Travis match play bracket is renowned for its unpredictability. Seven consecutive number one seeds had lost to the 16 seed before Gilliam outlasted well-decorated amateur star Ken Bakst 3&2 in his morning round. Gilliam then survived the match of the tournament thus far, a swashbuckling clash with young Irish star Eoin O'Connor that went 22 holes.
"There were so many swings in our match, we knew it had to be entertaining," Gilliam admitted, and it was. O'Connor grabbed an early lead with birdies at one and two, and surged to 3-up after Gilliam bogeyed the par-4 10th.
"I wasn't executing, which was a little frustrating, but I was mostly worried that Eoin would get too much momentum and ride it the rest of the way," Gilliam explained. "I needed to counterpunch and get some confidence and momentum going, and luckily I got it right away."
Gilliam responded with a birdie at 11, and when O'Connor three-putted the par-3 12th for bogey, the former Hooters Tour player and University of Florida star was back in the match, only 1-down.
Then Gilliam made a ghastly error that by all rights should have cost him - he missed a two-foot tap-in on 13 and was 2-down.
"You can't be nonchalant at Garden City, not on any shot whatsoever," he chided. "I lost focus and pushed it right, it didn't even hit the hole. And that putt was so short, he'd have given it to me in a regular game."
But no lead is safe at Garden City, and especially not in the Travis.
In a testament to Gilliam's fortitude, a central virtue for any golfer, but especially crucial at Garden City, he once again battled back immediately with a birdie on 14, smashing a gargantuan drive through the fairway, then lasering a lob wedge to five feet. After each made outstanding par saves on 15 with dueling short game wizardry - a miraculous up and down from above the hole by O'Connor and a long putt by Gilliam - they halved 16 and 17 with routine pars, setting the stage for an unforgettable finish.
"Eoin hit the greatest golf shot I have ever seen in my life," exclaimed the normally mellow Gilliam excitedly, pie-eyed with wonder as he recalled the magic.
1-down, Gilliam hit the green with a 6-iron, playing safely to the back and left of the green to avoid the vicious center pot bunker. O'Connor, meanwhile did the one thing he could not do - he put it in the bunker.
"The ball was embedded on the downslope at the front of the bunker, and there's Eoin with one foot out of the bunker and one foot in, standing awkwardly, facing an impossible lie," Gilliam said. "Now I always expect my opponent to hit a great shot, you have to be mentally prepared for that at all times, because they so often do it, but when I saw his stance and lie, I said 'he has no chance.'"
But with a flash of steel and a whoomp of sand, there was the ball, clearing the bunker lip with ease, dropping softly, and trickling slowly towards the hole. He put it 15 feet away, just outside Gilliam's ball. The crowd roared with approval, and then positively exploded when O'Connor drained the putt for an epic sandie, responding in the clutch like the thoroughbred he is.
But with the match on the line, do-or-die, Gilliam came through in the clutch too. His birdie putt never wavered, and as it tumbled into the cup, the gallery exploded with applause, a long rippling peal that rang throughout the golf course.
Gladiators, we salute you.
The four playoff holes were anti-climactic by comparison, routine pars, but when O'Connor couldn't match Gilliam's birdie at 4, the Irishman's valiant bid was over. Gilliam will face 13th seeded Kevin Gai, (pronounced "Guy"), who cruised past Scott Osler 5&4 in the morning, then outlasted David Hayes 1-up in the afternoon.
"Much of the credit for my good golf today goes to my friend Joe Capitola," he said. "He's just a golf buddy of mine along for moral support, but having someone out here cheering for you inspires you. He was a friendly face and his support kept me relaxed."
Gai will have his work cut out for him tomorrow. Gilliam had eight years on the Hooters Tour and competed in the 2005 U.S. Open. He has a huge advantage in length - indeed, his length won him the playoff with O'Connor as the par-5 4th was too long for Eoin to reach. Still, they play golf for the Travis and Garden City is relentless. Moreover, Gai is plucky, and guts counts for a lot. And you don't have to play great all day to win, you just have to respond in the clutch. Gilliam is a great shotmaker, but he makes mistakes too, and if Gai can hang around, he could outlast Gilliam.
The other match looks to be spectacular, with two evenly match veterans playing sublime golf. Both Steve White and Hans Albertsson are unflappable. They have all the shots, have no weaknesses in any facet of their games, they don't make mental errors, and remain calm and calculating under pressure. They both thrive on it.
Albertsson who has won several big-name events can call on that experience. He defeated a heavily favored Jon Marsico in the morning match, turning a 2-down deficit with five to play into a 2&1 victory by winning the last four consecutive holes.
"That was huge, because he's a great player," Albertsson admitted, impressed with the Travis rookie's broad and deep talent. Marsico will be heard from for many future Travis Invitationals, for certain.
Albertsson then rode another hot streak to victory in the afternoon match against Greg Stebbins. Even through ten holes, Albertsson won three in a row to build a formidable 3-up lead. A birdie at the fearsome brute of a par-4 15th hole secured the match and Albertsson's first trip to the semi-finals.
But Steve White - called "the best bunker player in the field" by several members - is cruising through the bracket with equal ease. He defeated Hal Berman 2&1 in his morning match, then demolished Dan Russo 7&6 to reach the semifinals.
It's equally stunning that the two and three seeds advanced as well as the number one, since the casual slings and arrows of the stroke play qualifier usually jumble the field so strangely, any seed can beat any other, making a by-the-numbers bracket this deep into the tournament not quite a statistical outlier, but a highly unlikely and noteworthy occurrence.
"This isn't basketball," observed head professional emeritus Gil McNallly in a pre-tournament interview. "Seedings usually mean nothing."
He's right. The semifinalists last three years were the following seeds:
2008 - 2, 4, 6, 16 (the 6 won, Mike Kelley)
2009 - 5, 9, 11, 15 (the 11 won, Chris Lange)
2010 - 5, 10, 14, 16 (the 5 won, "Big Ben" Hayes)
Now comes the moment to seize the opportunity. Unquestionably, the Travis is a wonderful, historic event. It is also a grueling test: a one-shot-only stroke play qualifier, followed by four fiercely-contested match play rounds against crucible-tested competitors on a golf course that makes you bite your nails on every shot. It's a mighty feat just to get to the semi-finals. Any competitor can consider that a successful performance, a great tournament.
But that's only the thin end of the wedge isn't it? Once you get that close, once you begin to think about winning…taste it…savor it…daydream about it…that's the siren song.
The Travis is all about becoming a part of history. Sure, everyone walks in history this week, celebrates it, immerses themselves in it, steeps in it so they absorb it into their golf DNA. But when you win the Travis, you become history. Win the Travis and you are the lore they celebrate in holy whispers through the centuries.
Your name, spoken of reverently for decades to come, in the same breath as Walter Travis, Devereux Emmet, George Burns, David Eger, and George Zahringer. Your name the list of champions at Garden City, along with U.S. Open and Amateur winners, and Walker Cup stars.
Heck, you're on the wall with Francis Ouimet and Bobby Jones. How does that sound?
"This is my favorite week of the year," Gai affirmed. "Every year I make more and more great friends. We get away from our lives, celebrate all the memories and the history and take the greatest walk in golf."
Everyone who has ever been to a Travis knows that its true magic is the camaraderie. One of my best friends sent me a card 20 years ago that I still keep close and hold dear. It said, "A friend is a gift you give yourself." The Travis enriches all our lives with friends: noble, sincere, and selfless.
But to win the Travis goes beyond that. Winning the 101 year old event contested at one of golf's most ancient splendors would make one eternal, immortal, heroic.
And that is the opportunity of a lifetime.
(1) Nick Gilliam vs. (13) Kevin Gai
(2) Steve White vs. (3) Hans Albertsson
FLIGHT 1 (EMMET CUP)
(4) Dan Goldstein vs. (16) Jamie Slonis
(7) Ryan Chin vs. (11) Mike Kelley
FLIGHT 2 (C.B. MACDONALD CUP)
(1) Dave Boccia vs. (5) Matt Meyer
(6) Arthur Starrs, III vs. (7) Jack Eisenbeis
FLIGHT 3 (ROBERT TRENT JONES CUP)
(1) Joe Saladino vs. (4) John Gammage
(3) James Buckley vs. (7) Patrick Pierson
FLIGHT 4 (TAFT CUP)
(1) Jason Monroe vs. (4) Curt Coulter
(3) Tim Schmitt vs. (7) Kurt Kashevaroff
(6) Chris Lange vs. (15) Gerry Garber
(9) Rick Schmitt vs. (12) Ron Vanelli
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.