Three down with nine to play?
No problem for Michigan State sensation James Piot, who carries a whole lot of heart and grit — to go with his 14 clubs — in his golf bag. Consider this: He had to chip in twice over his final six holes in the qualifier in Grand Rapids last month just to make it into this week’s U.S. Amateur, where he quickly found himself a runway outside the cut line for match play after the opening round of stroke play.
Today, he’s a U.S. Amateur champion, the first ever born in the state of Michigan, and just the second from a Michigan college — for a tournament that first was played in 1895.
“It’s kind of where he likes to be now,” said his head coach at Michigan State, Casey Lubahn, sitting in his car outside Oakmont Country Club on Sunday night, an hour after Piot hoisted the trophy. “He just kind of gets comfortable being there. He’s like (Izzo) a little bit … he likes being the underdog.
“Izzo actually told me a little while ago, ‘It’s a golf school, now.’ I’m going with that.”
Piot, the Canton native and Michigan State senior, rallied from three holes down through 27, and made a clutch 15-footer for par on the 35th hole of the day to beat North Carolina’s Austin Greaser, 2 and 1, in Sunday’s 36-hole final at Oakmont.
Piot, 222, was the last man standing from a field of 312 of the best amateur golfers from all over the globe in one of the United States Golf Association’s signature tournaments, joining UM’s Johnny Fischer as the only men from a Michigan college to take the title.
Fischer won his in 1936.
In between Fischer’s and Piot’s, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods won theirs.
“I still don’t believe I’m holding this trophy right now,” Piot said, staring down at the newest — and shiniest — addition to his growing trophy case.. “I still think I’m dreaming.”
Before a swelling gallery of family, friends and teammates, who made the trek to suburban Pittsburgh — most of the Michigan State men’s team showed up in green polos, and most of the women’s team, too, including 2020 and 2021 U.S. Women’s amateur semifinalists Valery Plata and Valentina Rossi, respectively — Piot collected the Havemeyer Trophy, as well as berths into the 2022 Masters, U.S. Open and British Open.
Also in the gallery were Lubahn, who’s been there all week; Mike Anderson, Piot’s coach at Detroit Catholic Central who made the trip into town Saturday night, postponing a work trip to California; many Catholic Central friends and teammates; older brother Glenn, a former MSU golfer; and parents Glenn and Judith.
Michigan State associate head coach Dan Ellis, who began recruiting Piot when he was a freshman, caddied.
Piot led one up through the morning 18 holes, but, changing into a white polo with a green Sparty swinging a golf club on the right chest for the afternoon, struggled out of the gate on the second 18 with Greaser winning three of the first four holes of the second 18 to go 2 up. He then went three up through 27 holes, when Piot made bogey at the par-4 ninth hole.
It was an unfamiliar feeling for Piot, who had only trailed for nine holes total in his first five matches.
But the back nine has been Piot’s personal playground all week, and it was again, as he won the par-4 10th hole thanks to a stiff approach shot with a 9 iron from 150 yards, for his first birdie (and first hole win) of the afternoon match. He then went on to win the next three holes, as well, on three Greaser bogeys.
“I knew good swings were coming,” Piot said.
At the short, par-4 14th, Piot got up and down from the greenside rough, chipping to a foot for a birdie, looking like he might go 2 up. But Greaser made a 15-footer to halve the hole, and stay alive.
Greaser’s momentum was short-lived, as he found the penal church-pew bunkers off the tee on the par-4 15th, leading to a bogey. Piot made par to go 2 up. He just missed a 15-footer for birdie at the par-3 16th, then, after going from one greenside bunker to another, won it on 17 by making a 15-foot par putt — with a trusty putter so old and non-namebrand, friends and teammates call it “Garbage” — before Greaser’s 8-footer for birdie slid by.
In winning the trophy (he keeps it for a year) and gold medal (he keeps it forever), Piot joined a legendary list of Oakmont major champions, including Nicklaus, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen, Johnny Miller, Ernie Els and Dustin Johnson.
Greaser, 20, whose length — he drove several par-4s throughout the week, including the 14th to win the hole in the morning Sunday — and swagger and demeanor has drawn comparisons to Johnson, will be a junior at North Carolina. He is from Vandalia, Ohio.
“Just didn’t execute on the back nine,” Greaser said. “He did, and hat’s off to him. He played a great match. The cards fell his way this time.”
This was Piot’s fourth tournament win of the calendar year, including the 100th Golf Association of Michigan Championship, the Michigan Medal Play at Detroit Golf Club and a college tournament at Indiana. He also played in the NCAA Championships as an individual, and made the Sweet 16 of the Western Amateur.
Piot won the GAM Championship in Franklin on Aug. 3; remarkably, within an hour of collecting that trophy, he was back practicing at his home course, Fox Hills in Plymouth. That’s long been a hallmark of Piot’s game — a relentless work ethic.
“He’s maniacal,” Lubahn said this weekend, with a laugh. “He said, ‘I’ve gotta get better.’ Goodness gracious. I spend most of my time trying to talk him into doing something else, just chill for a moment. But he just loves to work. When you love to work, he doesn’t think of it as work. He thinks of it as just what he does.”
Piot took up the game when he was 4, was first recruited by Michigan State when he was in eighth grade, and committed early in his senior year at Catholic Central.
After he committed, Lubahn, who took that phone call in a grocery store, asked him about his collegiate goals. Lubahn suggested starting with All-Big Ten. Piot went even beyond that, saying All-America.
Now, he’s pretty much All-World.
“It’s just a phenomenal feeling,” said Piot, the 86th-ranked amateur in the world — but not for much longer — who soon will find out it’s no small thing to win such a prestigious trophy in the NIL (name, image and likeness) era of college athletics.
“It validates where I ended up and feels like there was a purpose to going to Michigan State.”
Greaser was ranked 82nd.
Piot was the first Michigan native to play in the U.S. Amateur final since Detroiter Chuck Kocscis, a former UM golfer, in 1956. UM’s Nick Carlson made the semifinals in 2016, at Oakland Hills.
With the win, Piot, also a former Junior PGA champion, earned a 10-year exemption into the U.S. Amateur, though that’s more of a cosmetic prize, as he’ll almost certainly turn pro — and thus become ineligible — after his second senior season, which was afforded him by the NCAA because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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