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In this interlude between US Opens, enjoying a more rustic Pinehurst experience

Wooden flags crafted for US Amateur golf tournament

Golfers at the 2019 U.S. Amateur Championship in Pinehurst receive an American flag produced by the Heritage Flag Company that was made from trees that were removed from the Pinehurst property following Hurricane Matthew.
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Golfers at the 2019 U.S. Amateur Championship in Pinehurst receive an American flag produced by the Heritage Flag Company that was made from trees that were removed from the Pinehurst property following Hurricane Matthew.

The 18th green Payne Stewart made famous 20 summers ago sat empty and quiet all of Saturday afternoon, unneeded to decide either semifinal at the U.S. Amateur, the clubhouse veranda filled with chattering fans taking a break from the heat, forever unshushed.

It may not be needed Sunday, either. With the first 18 holes of the 36-hole final being played on Pinehurst’s No. 4 course before moving to the more famous contours of No. 2 — the first time ever the final match will be split between two courses — it’s entirely likely the national amateur champion will be decided elsewhere. One of Saturday’s matches finished on the 17th green, the other on the 16th, each as much a signature hole as the 18th, but without that signature moment.

But it didn’t matter Saturday, and it won’t matter Sunday. This isn’t the U.S. Open, where the drama is often at the end — even if Michael Campbell had things sown up before he reached the 18th in 2005, and Martin Kaymer before he teed off on Sunday in 2014. The Open is a worldwide megaevent that commands a stage like that; the Amateur is something unto itself.

It’s golf at its purest, amateur in fact and not in theory like the NCAA’s phony exploitative amateur ideal. There are no ropes separating players from galleries, with fans walking the fairways alongside the players and interacting with the caddies. Many of the competitors will go on to become pros. Many of the winners go on to become famous. But most realistically aspire to be nothing more than the best player at their course, or among their friends.

This is the kind of tournament where a teaching-pro father can caddie his 17-year-old son to the semifinals, as Cohen Trolio enjoyed this week before his 3-and-1 elimination at the hands of Georgia Tech’s Andy Ogletree, from a town in Mississippi so small the only street light is over the putting green in his backyard. Or a two-decade Pinehurst caddie can pick up a bag and find himself heckling his own player on Saturday, as ponytailed English hippie Keith Silva did with William Holcomb V, the other losing semifinalist, 3 and 2 to Vanderbilt’s John Augenstein.

“I’ve been here 20 years, I’ve never seen a putt that bad on that green,” Silva told Holcomb as they walked off the sixth green after a putt that nearly rolled across the green and into a bunker on the opposite side. “You only missed it by 14 feet.”

The two first got together at the North & South Amateur, where Holcomb’s first impression was that Silva was “a complete idiot.” But Holcomb, a Sam Houston State player who was more formally dressed Saturday than he was at his wedding — the only semifinalist in pants Saturday, shorts and a linen shirt at his nuptials — gave as good as he got, catching the caddie lagging behind and tangled in the gallery on the back nine.

“I’m not paying all these people to hang out with me,” Holcomb said. “I’m paying you.”

And it’s the beauty of match play that Trolio and Ogletree can combine for 11 bogeys, three doubles and two glorious birdies — both by Ogletree, the last to close out a match he described as “terrible” — while Augenstein and Holcomb were a combined 2-over par, but Augenstein and Ogletree will each have the same shot in Sunday’s ACC vs. SEC final. They’re both going to the Masters, but only one of them is going to be in Tiger Woods’ threesome next April.

As the wind not so much whistled as roared through the pines on a glorious partly cloudy day, the shadows lengthened across the idle 18th. This Amateur is an interlude between Opens. We’re halfway to 2024, and that looms ever closer in the distance. But there’s something different and special about this tournament, so easily felt Saturday, and it will be even stronger on Sunday.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.