RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. – There’s a traffic sign on one of the winding roads I’m using this week to get to Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club that cautions drivers about people crossing on horseback (think yield sign, but with a silhouette of a man riding a horse), which is probably all you need to know about this two-block downtown San Diego suburb that also happens to be one of the richest cities in America. Its beautiful views seem to go on forever, and so does the quiet, which is most important to this story (and resident Phil Mickelson, especially after a U.S. Open).
This week at the U.S. Junior, silence is again the secret ingredient.
I’m even debating hanging a sign on the clubhouse door at Missouri’s Boone Valley Golf Club before next year’s U.S. Junior that cautions newbies to this. I’m thinking a silouhette of Kevin Tway, perhaps doing the robot.
Tway, who won last year’s Junior at Longmeadow Country Club showing about as much excitement as a divot, and is one of eight players remaining this week, has apparently become junior golf’s Pied Piper on mute. As a result, I am surrounded this week by tight-lipped teen-agers, unexpressed yet clutch, walking down fairways like they’re library stacks.
I hereby claim this land in the name of Retief.
“Yeah, they’re all like that (this week),” said Golfweek’s second-ranked junior Philip Francis, the only player from the top four of Golfweek’s junior rankings yet to be shushed.
Top-ranked Peter Uihlein exited first, losing to William Miller on the 18th hole in the first round. His friend and stroke-play medalist Arnond “Bank” Vongvanij (No. 4) went next to Danny Lee of New Zealand in Round 2, where Rickie Fowler (No. 3) also fell to Andrew Putnam.
Miller and Putnam, who later defeated Tadd Fujikawa to make the quarterfinals, follow most of the on-course Tway approach, walking with little talking.
“(Putnam) was very focused,” said Fujikawa, of recent U.S. Open fame. “He acknowledges you, but at the same time when he’s ready to hit the shot he focuses on the shot, and it’s great that he does that and that’s what makes him the player that he is.”
Lee, who showed signs early of being Blood Type Tway, fist-pumped after rolling in a 15-footer for par on 18 to beat Vongvanij. That doesn’t fly in this clubhouse.
When Tway rolled in a 25-footer to win the ninth hole against Jean-Philippe Paiement of Canada Thursday, his reaction was not reacting. He picked up his ball and walked to the 10th tee, poker face intact. Tway’s focus is such that he admitted to not even noticing a Bradley Johnson approach to the 17th hole that hit the pin during the final match of last year’s Junior, a shot everyone else in the gallery saw and heard.
Lee, a Korean who has been living in New Zealand for the past five years, showed his true feelings for such robotics in a Round 3 defeat of Robbie Ziegler, a kid nicknamed “The Robot” due to his deliberate dead air on the course. Ziegler even carried his own bag this week because he said he doesn’t like having to talk to a caddie. He prefers the silence. It helps him keep better focus.
“You just have to stay in your game,” said Francis, who overcame closemouthed kids Brad Scheider and Morgan Hoffman on Thursday to advance. “But I like talking and having fun.”
Fortunately, Francis’ quarterfinal opponent, 2004 champion Sihwan Kim, is a familiar one and friend who also likes a little chatter. Makes sense that this is the most talked-about matchup of the championship thus far.
“I think talking helps me get my nervousness down, get my anxiety down,” Kim said. Francis beat Kim on the 19th hole of their third-round match last year, however, which could be one reason they might not talk as much Friday morning.
But they will talk.
Tway and Wesley Graham, who face off in the second quarterfinal match, won’t. The word count in this match won’t even surpass the number of holes played.
We could be faced with the quietest match in golf history, considering Graham, playing in only his second tournament outside the state of Florida, is a virtual Tway clone. Not only does Graham keep to himself during his round, marching down the fairway seemingly oblivious to the world around him. He also resembles post-round Tway, soft-spoken and quick to the point. A simple guy with simple answers, curious as to why anyone even cares.
“I just try to win and play my best,” said Graham, who despite being 11th in the Golfweek junior rankings is a relative unknown. He has played only one AJGA event, and spent most of his time dominating fields filled with kids outside the top 100, but is as confident as any of the final eight.
When Graham was asked Friday if he was surprised to have made it this far, he just stared and shook his head.
No words, of course, were necessary.
• • •
Eric Soderstrom is a Golfweek assistant editor. To reach him e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Originally published on July 21, 2007.)