Whicker: At Riviera, Braden Thornberry wins a U.S. Amateur match to remember
PACIFIC PALISADES — Five years ago Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas battled through the 18 riddles of Riviera.
It was the NCAA championship, Texas vs. Alabama, and Spieth won when he holed out from the 15th fairway.
Thousands will tell you they saw it, although dozens actually did.
Sometimes history doesn’t tell you when it’s happening. There were only a carload of folks at the first tee at Riviera on Wednesday, when Braden Thornberry shook hands with Joaquin Niemann.
As the straight drives and the solid putts and the answering birdies kept piling up, the crowd turned into dozens and then maybe a hundred. A nice quorum was waiting at 18, and Thornberry, the NCAA champ from Mississippi, rolled in a downhill 25-footer for birdie.
That was the only time either player led by more than one hole. Thornberry took the match, 2-up, and advanced to the second match-play round today.
For background, the 18-year-old Niemann is from Chile and is the top-ranked amateur in the world. Refreshingly, he seems no older than he is. His shirt-tail is halfway out and he has a playful smile, and he has won two amateur events this year and shot 64 in the third round of the Greenbirer Classic, a PGA Tour event.
“I think he’s probably the best guy I ever played,” Thornberry said. “I played with him for the first two rounds (of stroke play). He’s just a really fierce kid. He knows where the ball’s going. He knows how golf works.”
But Thornberry has been the summer sensation, all the way from the individual NCAA title to a win in the Sunnehanna Amateur to a rousing fourth-place finish at the PGA Tour event in Memphis, just north of his hometown of Olive Branch, Miss.
Most college stars would already be packed for the pro life. Thornberry will be back at Ole Miss as a junior next week. And, yeah, he realizes he would have pocketed $240,000 at Memphis.
“I talked to a lot of guys,” Thornberry said. “They all said they’ve never heard of anybody making a horrible decision by staying.”
Thornberry is a plus-sized fellow who has a chance to break some golf molds that need breaking.
He has a homemade swing, lifting the club almost straight up and then powering through.
“He had one lesson,” said Les Thornberry, his dad, “but he didn’t get much out of it.”
“They were concerned about where the club was, up top,” Braden said. “I was more worried about where the ball was going. A lot of people might have swings that don’t look good, but all that matters is where it goes.”
We need more of that and we also need less time over the ball. Once Thornberry gets everything lined up, he is firing.
“I told him that the more time you spend over the ball, the more things can go wrong,” his dad said. “He drives fast, too. We wish he wouldn’t do that.”
Braden broke an arm racing motorcycles. Then he broke a leg. His mom Veronica cast a veto Braden couldn’t override. Golf was next.
“He started when he was about 10,” Les said. “Then he won the first tournament he ever played in, about three months later. I got him started, but this is all him.”
Thornberry also knows the shortest shots bring the money. He rolled in a 60-foot birdie on the third hole. He made a fanciful up-and-down for par on 15. He probably turned around the match on 13 when he drove behind a tree and faded a 245-yard 2-iron to within 18 feet and made that for birdie. It gave Thornberry his first lead, after coming back to tie Niemann three times.
“I think that was the moment,” Niemann said.
“I don’t practice my putting a crazy amount,” Thornberry said, “but I’ve always enjoyed chipping. If you can be good at those weird shots around the green, it goes into your whole game. You don’t have to be a robot then, you can go out there and feel it.”
Thornberry called Riviera the best course he’d ever played. It is much better on days like this, without the tents and the scoreboards and the bleachers of February. For one thing, it makes for stronger, tougher winds. And the USGA also made the first hole a par-4, as it should be.
As Thornberry and Niemann kept matching classic shots, the crowd grew and yet so did the quiet. You could hear the drives making doorbell sounds as they crashed into poles on the range. Thornberry’s final putt brought some surprised gasps and a few claps. Years from now the tales will grow, as will the witness list.
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