Anyone who missed Steven Fox’s unlikely victory in Sunday’s 36-hole final of the U.S. Amateur Championship is the lesser for it. You won’t witness a better argument for the dramatic glories of match play and its magnificent leveling qualities. Fox should never have beaten Michael Weaver, as he ultimately did on the 37th hole at Denver’s Cherry Hills Country Club. Indeed, if it weren’t for the vagaries of tape-delayed telecasts and modern media alliances, I’d have missed it myself.
Here’s what happened: I was called away Sunday afternoon by a gaggle of visiting relatives, so I recorded (with my DVR) what I presumed to be NBC’s edited/taped presentation of the final that aired from 4-6 p.m. EST. Saturday’s NBC telecast was tape delayed and generally I’ve got real problems with networks presenting golf events on tape, as the viewer knows in advance the action has been edited to fit a specific programming period, which can in turn lead to the outcome being revealed ahead of time. For example, if it’s 5:50 p.m. EST and some dude is two up with two to play, clearly the other dude isn’t going to stage a monumental comeback, nor is the match going to extra holes — because the local news is coming on at 6 p.m., come hell or high water.
Still, I wanted to see this final. I wanted to see Cherry Hills, which I played a few years back, and I wanted to see which unheralded participant would win this match-up of 60th and 63rd seeds (!). So, late Sunday night, I settled in to watch what I presumed to be NBC’s taped coverage, which I in turn had taped.
On the 17th hole with Weaver dormie, the tape ran out. Apparently, the telecast ran over its allotted 2-hour time slot. For all the world, NBC’s coverage resembled the pre-packaged, edited version they always present on the Amateur’s final day — salted strategically, of course, with myriad feel-good features on the competitors, their families, the vaunted trophy room at Cherry Hills (site of 9 USGA championships), and Arnie’s driving the 1st green en route to a closing 65 to win the 1960 Open.
But maybe NBC had run the event live. Why else would the 4-6 p.m. time slot have been breached? … Or maybe my DVR clock was off kilter… Or maybe they switched the live telecast at 6 p.m. over to their partners at The Golf Channel? … Maybe the match had indeed ended just seconds after the tape ran out — Weaver was just a putt from claiming a 2 & 1 victory…
Mystified and slightly irked, I flipped over to The Golf Channel, where, 5 hours after the fact, surely the event was still being parsed 16 different ways. But lo and behold, what was on TGC but an encore presentation of Sunday’s NBC telecast! And here’s the really weird part: I switched it on almost precisely where my DVR’d version had cut out — on the 17th green, both guys with birdie putts, Fox’s to stay alive and Weaver’s to close out the match.
It was sort of eerie. I mean, The Golf Channel programmers surely had no idea that I had taped the NBC telecast. Even if they did, surely they wouldn’t have any idea WHEN I would watch the recording. Or would they…
In any case, a hearty round of applause for NBC’s partnership with The Golf Channel, without which I would have missed one of the most compelling finishes to an Amateur since Steve Scott took Tiger Woods to extra holes before losing in 1996.
Fox drained his birdie at 17, while Weaver missed, leading to a crazy 36th hole where Fox looked dead to rites (in the thick right rough) but somehow found the elevated green from a steep, side-hill lie. His two putts left Weaver with a 4-footer to win it all, but the Cal student authored one of the most cruel and violent lip-outs I’ve ever seen, on TV or in person.
Turns out all the syrupy flashbacks and references to Palmer driving the 1st green in 1960 had resonance, because Weaver’s decision to drive the 346-yard, 37th hole cost him the Amateur. He pulled it left, beyond the green and the 2nd tee. He fluffed his chip, then chunked another. Fox hit 6-iron off the tee, dropped his approach 15 feet above the pin, and coaxed into the cup his birdie attempt when two putts would have sufficed.
Fox had no business winning that match. His unorthodox swing, his lack of length and collegiate pedigree should have left him happy to have merely qualified for match play, much less the final. But he was dogged and nervelessly drained every putt he looked at, all day. Still, if Weaver had made that 4-footer on the 36th hole, it would not have been enough.
But it was enough. It was heartbreaking. It was thrilling. It was all highly unlikely, and eventually I got to see the best bits, plus the extraordinary denouement, via recordings of a recording, on two different TV outlets, late at night, on the couch by myself.