Weekend Wrap: Stubbs Takes AAC Thriller To Earn Augusta And Troon Trips
Aussie wins Asia Pacific Amateur in a wild playoff. Plus, LIV major invites are not happening in '24, Donald reflects on a Captaincy sequel, and Endeavor is already rejected. Or were they?
How’s that for destiny: Jasper Stubbs hit the first and the last shot of the Asia-Pacific Amateur.
In between Thursday morning’s nerve-wracking chill and an epic Sunday conclusion that saw the Australian swarmed by his national teammates, magnificent Royal Melbourne baked out just enough under sun and wind. The resulting springtime crispiness turn its intricate greens into field separators and provided the stage for quite possibly the most incredible finish of 2023.
Stubbs lives two miles from Royal Melbourne and started the final day six back of third round course record setter Sampson Zheng of China. The 21-year-old Aussie’ experience in coping with the sandbelt-infused purity of Alister MacKenzie and Alex Russell’s design set up a clutch 1-under-par 69. This forced a playoff with Zheng (75) and his countryman, Wenyi Ding (70). But it was no ho-hum 1-under-par score: Stubbs was one of only four players Sunday to post an under-par round.
Stubb’s fine closing round came a day after Zheng posted a Saturday 65 to set a new amateur Composite Course record. That amazing feat came on a grueling day when just 19 players broke 75 in non-prevailing winds. Zheng’s 65 was recorded when only one other player posted a sub-70 round. Amazing.
But as any golfer knows, such an outlier round set Zheng up for the inevitable letdown sequel Sunday. He held the day together well enough to arrive at the 18th with a chance to win outright. But Zheng would need birdie on the 474-yard par 4 to avoid a playoff. No player birdied the 18th in the final round.
With Stubbs and Ding in the clubhouse a group ahead, Zheng parred the brute of a finisher to join the championship’s first-ever three-way sudden-death playoff.
The trio was carted back to the 18th tee for what seemed like another tournament absurdly playing the final hole on repeat because, well, that’s where the spectators are. To television viewers looking at it all through a rear green view, the 18th flagstick looked more like a practice round placement in the center of the green. But the field’s futility at the finisher hinted at the difficulty in landing an approach close. From the fairway the flagstick appeared cut in the center of a green featuring sandbelt bunkering crisply cutting into the green. But like all of Royal Melbourne’s hazards, the bunker only juts in at enough of an angle to reward the most extreme precision. Even to center pin placements.
Thanks to the increased firmness any approach Sunday within 25 feet was a brilliant play. All other shots either found the bunker or bounced to the left. In the threeway playoff, both Ding and Stubbs covered the flag only to see big first bounces that set up difficult downhill birdie putts. Zheng’s approach came in just a shade left of the pin. Just enough to send his ball bounding just off the green. The stocky Cal golf senior speaks three languages and has a terrific all-around game capable of handling the shot. Yet he curiously chose a wedge (perhaps to get around around sprinkler heads in his way), but still gave himself a makeable par putt of around ten feet. He never got a chance.
Stubbs faced the righthander’s cryptonite—unless they’re Jon Rahm—a fast, downhill and huge left-to-right breaker. No one had sniffed making the putt all afternoon. Stubbs drained the 20-footer for the first birdie at 18 Sunday. The make eliminated Zheng and sent his Australian national teammates into a frenzy as Stubbs remained cool aware the tournament was far from over.
Ding, the 2022 U.S. Junior Amateur champion, went next from a slightly straighter angle, but whatever was easier about his line had been negated by Stubbs holing the improbable birdie. Ding drained it and sent his heart-on-the-sleeves caddie (and dad) into another exuberant celebration.
The surviving playoff duo headed back to the 18th tee where they each found the fairway off the tee. Only this time both hit weaker approaches and the scramblefest was on.
Stubbs’ approach took enough a bounce after landing left of the hole. It was similar to Zheng’s just moments earlier only the ball stayed on the putting surface. That gave him a difficult 60-footer to two-putt for the win after Ding lost his approach into the bunker. While escaping a plugged lie Ding still faced a nearly impossible up and down given the dry sand, brick-hard green and intense pressure of playing for a spot in two majors. Ding did well to get his bunker shot within 20 feet.
Stubbs then rolled his 60-footer on a perfect line that seemed headed into the cup, only to curve at the last moment to stay within tap-in range. He marked. Ding missed his par save and the 21-year-old Australian then tapped in to join three other countrymen as winners of the 14th annual Asia-Pacific Amateur.
After shaking hands with Ding, Stubbs’ was serenaded by teammates with assorted clear liquids. He even took a quick swig of champagne in the moment. Why not? He’s 21. Even better, Stubbs is headed to the 2024 Masters, The Open at Royal Troon and The Amateur at Ballyliffin (assuming he remains an amateur).
The whole predictably entertaining event reinforced the beauty of what Augusta National and the R&A have put together, especially those years when the AAC goes to one of the great designs on the planet. The young players who competed with incredible grace and skill will never face a test quite like what a firm, fast and carefully-presented Royal Melbourne presents. As guest commentator Geoff Ogilvy noted several times during a guest cameo Sunday, playing a sandbelt masterpiece in such conditions will make them all better players prepared for almost anything they will face down the road.
The 2023 Asia-Pacific Amateur field originally consisted of 120 male amateurs from 37 nations in the Asia-Pacific region. After four days, one of them heads to a pair of 2024 majors exceedingly well prepared after surviving relentless Royal Melbourne.
Final round highlights:
The full leaderboard can be viewed here. The top 10:
No Plans For LIV Spots In Masters, The Open
Following recent calls for LIV’s top money earners to receive major championship invites now when it was confirmed world ranking points won’t be coming anytime soon, two majors said no thanks. At least for 2024.
Speaking at the Asia-Pacific Amateur, Masters Chairman Fred Ridley and R&A CEO Martin Slumbers both ruled out invites to the 2024 Masters and Open Championship based on LIV’s money list. Their swift answer spares the golf world (at least) two painful months of speculation revolving the epitome of tediousness: the plight of 48 mostly brats whose life revolves around making more money.
“While we do not, at this time, anticipate making a change in 2024, we do always look at (exemptions), and we will continue to do that,” said Ridley. “Our qualifications are very much dynamic, and we adjust to what we feel is in the best interest of a tournament representing the best players in the world. We’ll always look at that.”
The tournament does reserve the right to make special invites based on merit or for international players who did not otherwise qualify.
Slumbers went farther in adamantly denying talks of any kind had taken place with LIV about giving Open spots to the Saudi league stars.
“There's been some speculation in the media recently on the topic that you're raising,” Slumbers said. “I would say that it is completely off the mark. I would like to make it very clear that exemptions for the Open, we do not discuss them with anyone and nor would we at any point in time.”
The Open generally releases its annual exemptions and full qualifying series in February. Admirably, the organization has been inching back to offering more spots via Final Qualifying. That expansion would be cut into by giving spots to top LIV money earners not already exempt. Slumbers sounds unwilling to move away from what makes the Open special.
“I think it's very important that you don't lose sight of the fact that the Open is intended to be open to everybody; that you earn your place in the field, through exemptions, and that won't change.”
Note: any LIV players eager to play The Open or U.S. Open are still able to go through the qualifying process.
Donald: "When you're part of something so memorable like that, you don't want it to end.”
The group chat is “still rolling”, Luke Donald is savoring Europe’s Ryder Cup win, and without explicitly saying so he confirmed the door has been opened for another Captaincy.