FORT WAYNE, Ind. – He sank putts from everywhere – long ones from deep in the valley, tricky ones through the dew-soaked fringe, slippery ones from above the hole. Denny McCarthy made everything until the 18th hole, that is, where for once a miss down the stretch didn’t cost him.
In a summer of close calls, this was one magnificent blowout.
McCarthy overcame a three-shot deficit in the final round and closed the 35th Junior PGA Championship with a flourish, shooting a 3-under 69 Thursday to claim his first major title on a sun-splashed afternoon at Sycamore Hills. McCarthy, a Virginia commit, finished with a three-round total of 9-under 207, three shots ahead of Anthony Paolucci (68).
“This is as good as it gets,” said McCarthy, 17, of Burtonsville, Md. “With a field like this, all the top players, it’s pretty special.”
McCarthy took the lead for the first time in the championship with a 20-foot birdie putt on the 10th hole, then played steady to the clubhouse as the wind picked up and several players faded from contention.
None fell harder than Oliver Schniederjans, who entered the day with a three-shot lead. He made four bogeys in a five-hole span around the turn to drop out of the lead, eventually finishing with a 76 to tie for third.
“I’ve learned a lot from my final rounds,” said Schniederjans, a Georgia Tech commit, “but I guess I’ve got to learn more. An awful day, really.”
McCarthy could relate. In fact, when we last saw McCarthy on a national stage, two weeks ago at the U.S. Junior Amateur, he walked alone down the first fairway after being eliminated in the semifinals. He vowed to cap his summer with a signature major victory, something he hadn’t yet accomplished at the tournaments that align the best juniors in the game.
“I’ve been knocking at the doorstep so many times,” McCarthy said, “and it’s nice to finally break through.”
His week at Sycamore Hills started unassumingly, after a first-round 72 put him seven shots back of Justin Thomas’ record-setting pace. If not for an unfortunate carom off a tree in the second round, resulting in a momentum-killing double bogey at No. 6, McCarthy could very well have entered the final round one back of the lead. Instead, he settled for a second-round 66, and the knowledge that he’d need to stay aggressive, fire at every flag, drop putts with regularity.
He did so Thursday from the very first hole, setting Sycamore Hills abuzz with a start hotter than any player had produced – 5 under through his first six holes.
McCarthy, in fact, didn’t record a par until the eighth hole, opening his round with an eagle, four birdies and two bogeys. By that point, he already had erased the three-shot deficit with which he had begun the day.
“I knew I had to shoot a good number again today, and I had the same mindset,” McCarthy said. “I felt really comfortable out there today.”
Schniederjans, meanwhile, struggled to stay apace. He bogeyed Nos. 8, 9, 11 and 12, the last of which was particularly damaging. With just 230 yards to the flag on the par 5, Schniederjans “shove-sliced” a long iron over a bunker behind the green, leaving a near-impossible shot with water looming in the distance. He attempted a flop shot but the ball carried too far, trundling into the hazard. “Huge mistake,” said Schniederjans, shaking his head.
McCarthy didn’t check a leaderboard until after the 16th hole. In complete control of his game, he never cared to.
That alone was a stark departure from his best results this summer, the three agonizingly-close finishes:
• McCarthy was runner-up to Paolucci at the AJGA Thunderbird International, a performance that “came out of nowhere, really,” Paolucci admitted.
• McCarthy held a slim lead at the AJGA FootJoy Invitational, but shot a final-round 75 to finish sixth.
• And after winning the Maryland Open, McCarthy was on the verge of playing for a national championship before he was knocked out in the semifinals of the U.S. Junior Amateur.
Finally, a breakthrough. And with it, an automatic spot on the U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team.
“To get that monkey off my back, it just feels awesome,” said McCarthy. “I really can’t describe it.”
Paolucci, the 2008 Junior PGA champ, mixed two eagles, four birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey in his round of 68, which vaulted him into second and secured a Junior Ryder Cup berth.
“It was just a really weird week,” said Paolucci, 17, of Del Mar, Calif. “I just wasn’t sharp, but my game is still in good enough shape now where I can still play with it.”
Wyndham Clark closed with a 69 to tie for third with Schniederjans. Daniel Lee (70), Jay Hwang (72) and Patrick Rodgers (72) tied for fifth at 4 under.
• • •
Cassy Isagawa faced the same 5-foot putt on the edge of the 18th green. The third and final time, she still needed the lip of the cup for an assist.
Isagawa chipped in for birdie on the 16th, then sank three clutch putts down the stretch to defeat Ginger Howard in a playoff and win the girls’ division.
“It was really stressful,” said Isagawa, 16, of Wailuku, Hawaii. “That was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life.
“But having the same putt three times in a row, I should end up making it.”
She almost didn’t, on at least one occasion.
Playing the 18th in regulation, Isagawa pushed her drive into the bushes and chopped out short of the green. After a delicate chip over a ridge to a back-left hole location, she faced a 5-footer to force a playoff with Howard, who birdied her last two holes to shoot a final-round 69 and post 3-under 213.
As Howard waited behind the green, arms crossed and eyes straight ahead as cameramen sat a few feet away, hoping to capture a moment of elation, Isagawa curled in her par putt and headed back to the 18th tee.
“When I saw her make that putt, I was extremely nervous and started shaking,” Howard said. “Somehow, I managed to stay calm enough to play.”
On the first playoff hole, Howard had the advantage after Isagawa again found the right trees. Howard hit her second shot on the green, some 50 feet from the cup, but her first attempt came up short, leaving her 10 feet down the hill. She poured the putt in the middle, putting the pressure back on Isagawa, who was in her familiar spot, 5 feet away.
Again, she lipped in for par.
“That was a good save,” Isagawa said.
The playoff moved to the 17th, a short par 4 with a deep bunker protecting the front of the green. Isagawa stuck her approach to 5 feet, and was on the verge of winning the title – until she lipped out.
“It started to boggle my mind a little bit,” Isagawa said. “But I just knew I had to trust my stroke moving forward.”
On the third playoff hole, Howard and Isagawa found the right rough at 18, and both players missed the green to the right. Howard faced a more difficult pitch and couldn’t get up-and-down.
But there was Isagawa, 5 feet away, again. It was only fitting that her putt caught the lip and dropped.
“I never expected to get this far,” she said. “It feels great, and it was a wonderful week.”
This is the first national victory for Isagawa, No. 31 in Golfweek’s Junior Rankings. She recently finished second at the Junior World Golf Championship and earned medalist honors at the America’s Cup.
It was a breakthrough performance for Howard, too, after she shot 68-69 in the final two rounds to surge into contention.
“Right now, I have no regrets,” she said. “I’m proud of myself. It didn’t really work out, but I made it pretty far and I’m really happy.”
Kyle Roig (73) finished two shots back, in solo third, and Ariya Jutanugarn (70) was another stroke behind. Kristen Park finished fifth after a 73.