Kelly Kraft captures US Amateur Championship earning Open and Walker Cup spots

Kelly Kraft, 22, of Denton, Texas, defeated Patrick Cantlay, 19, of Los Alamitos, Calif., 2 up, to win the 2011 U.S. Amateur Championship at 7,760-yard, par-72 Erin Hills.

“It's awesome. It's just great,” said Kraft, a three-time Conference USA Player of the Year while at Southern Methodist University. “It's such an honor to win this championship. There's none other better than this one.”

In victory, Kraft received exemptions into the 2012 U.S. Open Championship and Open Championship, as well as a likely invitation to the 2012 Masters Tournament. He was also named to the 2011 USA Walker Cup Team, which departs in a few days for Royal Aberdeen Golf Club in Scotland.

“(USA Team Captain Jim Holtgrieve) walked up to me on the green and told me, ‘See ya in Scotland.’ And I was like, ‘Wow.’ I didn't know what to say,” said an obviously elated Kraft, the Havemeyer Trophy sitting at his side. “I just won the tournament and then they told me this. I about had a heart attack.”

Kraft also joined Hank Kuehne (1998) and Colt Knost (2007) as SMU Mustangs to win the Amateur title.

It was Cantlay, a UCLA sophomore who holds the top spot in the World Amateur Ranking, who drew first blood in the match, making a birdie on the opening hole. However, Kraft was not intimidated by his opponent. Three birdies in a nine-hole stretch gave him a 4-up advantage by the 16th hole.

Not to be outdone, Cantlay began to rally when he converted a 60-foot putt for birdie on No. 17. He then won No. 18 with a bogey when Kraft hit two bunkers on his approach shots, giving Kraft a 2-up lead going into the lunch break.

“It's hard to get up that much on the No. 1 amateur in the world,” said Kraft. “I was happy being 2 up. Even losing the last two holes the morning round, I was still happy being 2 up. If you would have told me that before we started, I would have taken it.”

“Obviously I had a positive frame of mind going into 17, 18, just based on my play earlier this week,” said Cantlay, who had made comebacks on those holes in his earlier matches with Russell Henley and Max Buckley.

Cantlay’s momentum continued after the break. He pulled within one hole when his approach shot to the par-4 22nd hit the flagstick and gave him a 6-foot birdie putt. Kraft’s bogey on the par-3 24th then squared the match.

Another Kraft bogey on the par-4 28th hole handed Cantlay his first lead since the third hole of the morning round. But back-to-back Cantlay bogeys at Nos. 33 and 34 gave the lead back to Kraft.

After a missed par attempt on the 36th green, Cantlay took off his cap and conceded the victory to Kraft.

“I kind of figured if he missed that, then he would concede the hole,” said Kraft. “I'll take whatever way it comes.”

Kraft came into the championship slightly under the radar, despite 2011 victories at the Trans-Mississippi Championship and Texas State Amateur. Not highly recruited out of high school, he completed his four years of athletic eligibility at SMU after the 2010-2011 season. With plans to complete his sociology degree, Kraft was still entertaining thoughts of entering PGA Tour Q-School this year until taking the Amateur title.

“I'm going to have to see how long I can stay amateur for because I don't get (the championship if I turn pro,” said Kraft with a smile. “But I mean that's just great. I tried not to think about it too much yesterday. You know, I just tried to finish today. And now I can think about it all for a while.”

On the other hand, Cantlay had one of the more heralded amateur summers in recent memory. He garnered low-amateur honors at the U.S. Open and finished in the top-25 at three other PGA Tour events, carding an amateur-record-low 60 at the Travelers Championship. While he was certainly disappointed with his Amateur outcome, he was able to find a modicum of solace in his week at Erin Hills.

“I went 5 and 1 this week,” said Cantlay, who will team with Kraft at the Walker Cup Match. “I think that's not too bad. Going into the Walker Cup, I feel confident about my game and feel really good about the team we have.”
 
The 2012 U.S. Amateur Championship will be conducted at Cherry Hills Country Club in Cherry Hills Village, Colo., Aug. 13-19. Kraft and Cantlay are fully exempt into the championship, as are the other six quarterfinalists from 2011.