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Carlson plays large en route to U.S. Amateur quarterfinals

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Bloomfield Township — Nick Carlson was thrilled that a newspaper article earlier this week referred to him as 5-foot-8.

He's actually 5-foot-5.

And he's now, at least unofficially, a giant killer.

It took him 19 holes each match, but Carlson made birdie both times on the first sudden-death hole to knock off the Nos. 6- and 43-ranked amateurs in the world at the U.S. Amateur before some raucous and swelling — but respectful — maize-and-blue crowds at Oakland Hills Country Club on a scorching Thursday afternoon.

When a 3-foot, down-hiller on the first green dropped in the center of the cup, Carlson, a sophomore-to-be at Michigan celebrated a victory over Cal stud KK Limbhasut and a spot in Friday afternoon's quarterfinals.

The U.S. Amateur field began with 312 amateurs, and Carlson wasn't even the favored Wolverine to get to this point. Now, he's potentially three matches from hoisting the Havemeyer Trophy.

"It's unreal. I can't even put it to words," Carlson, doing his best to hold back his emotions, said following his second match Thursday.
"Sure, everyone's trying to win this, but I was just trying to get to match play and now I'm in the Elite Eight. Unreal."

Next up for Carlson is a 1:30 p.m. Friday showdown with Illinois' Dylan Meyer, the 35th-ranked amateur in the world, for an all-Big Ten battle. Meyer, who won the Western Amateur earlier this year, beat Sam Horsfield in the Sweet 16, also in 19 holes.

Carlson, the 1,981st-ranked amateur — at least for a few more hours — beat No. 6 Scott Gregory of England in 19 holes in his first match Thursday, then Limbasut, ranked No. 43, in the afternoon.

Making the quarterfinals earns Carlson an exemption into next year's U.S. Amateur.

But that's next year. And there's still business to take care of this year.

Huge Carlson gallery at U.S. Amateur shows its class

"I mean, we have a bunch of players on our team who I think are capable of doing really cool things in big events," said Chris Whitten, Michigan's golf coach, sweating profusely from following every step of the way Thursday.

"So this was just the right time for Nick. More than anything, I'm excited that he can do it in his home state in front of all these people.
"I know that means a lot to him and his family."

Carlson, 19, from the township of Hamilton (population, 3,000-ish) in West Michigan, said he fed Thursday off the crowd, which grew to hundreds by day's end — and included family, friends, teammates and just proud folks from Hamilton.

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel will be among those in the gallery Friday.

Carlson closed the match out with a wedge from 140 yards to about 3 feet on the first hole, in sudden death. He also birdied the hole to finish Gregory earlier.

Like he did in the morning match, Carlson took a commanding 3-up lead in the afternoon against Limbhasut, also a sophomore-to-be.

But Limbhasut fought back to square the match through the front nine, after Carlson made a third straight bogey.

Carlson then caught some bad breaks, which hasn't been the case much this week.

He thought he made a short putt on 12 to halve the hole, but it rimmed out as he stood in disbelief. Then, he found the back bunker at the par-3 13th hole, and didn't have much green to work with.

Still, he hit what he thought was a tremendous shot, landing just on the fringe. Somehow, it ran almost 30 feet past the hole.

He made bogey, Limbhasut went 1-up — and Carlson trailed for the first time of the week, in his third match.

"I thought it was the best shot of the week," Carlson said of his bunker shot at 13. "I told my caddie, 'I have to hit it right there,' and I hit that blade of grass. I couldn't do anything about it."

The gallery recognized that, and even applauded the shot when the ball finally stopped rolling.

Carlson put his hands in the air, like he'd just holed it — still enjoying the moment, even though he was about to trail for the first time.

He bounced back to square the match on 14, then went 1-down again on 15, when Limbhasut hit a wedge stiff on the short par 4 and made the putt. After they traded pars at 16 and 17, Carlson came to the 18th with his tournament life on the line. And, like he did earlier in the day against Gregory, he played a totally different hole than the 18th that's on the Oakland Hills scorecard.

With the tees back and the pin tucked left on the tough par 4, Carlson took aim at the 10th fairway, to the right of 18. He likes the angle.

"Nick, more than anyone, tries to think outside the box on a golf course," Tom Swanson, his teammate and a senior-to-be, said with a smile. 
"Especially where to hit it off the tee."

Carlson — who played much better in the morning Thursday, shooting 3 under through 18, but battled his swing and tired legs in the afternoon — had the same approach on No. 7 during both rounds Thursday, going after the No. 2 fairway.

Whitten said he wants his golfers to hit the shots they're comfortable with, and pointed out stats say shorter from the rough is easier than farther from the fairway.

But you're also taking the risk of a bad lie, and that's exactly what Carlson got when he didn't get his tee shot on 18 to the 10th fairway.
The ball was buried, he had 200 yards and trees to go over.

He muscled a 6 iron and it was a beauty, finishing some 25 feet right of the hole.

"In-course out-of-bounds, the USGA decided not to," Carlson said, sporting his 1,000-watt smile. "That's just how I'm gonna play the golf course.

"And I'm gonna do it."

Limbhasut, 20, from the fairway on 18, found the rough left of the green, and flubbed his chip short of the green.

With Carlson lagging to about 6 feet for par, Limbhasut then nearly holed his second chip to win the match, but the ball slid about 7 feet by. He missed, conceded Carlson's par, and they were off to extras.

As he walked off the 18th green toward the first tee, Carlson enthusiastically clapped his hands, amid gallery chants of, "Go Blue!"

There was even a, "Who Has It Better Than Us" yelp from the crowd. Jim Harbaugh would be proud.

"Just to see all the Michigan hats and the Michigan shirts, and people yelling, 'Go Blue," I even had a couple Sparties yelling, 'Go Blue.' It's unreal," Carlson said. "It's like movie-esque."

U.S. AMATEUR

When: Monday-Sunday

Where: Oakland Hills Country Club, Bloomfield Township

Thursday: Round of 32 and 16 match play narrowed the field to the final eight players.

Local entrant: UM sophomore-to-be Nick Carlson defeated Scott Gregory, of England, and KK Limbhasut, of Cal, both in 19 holes, to advance to the quarterfinals.

Shot of the day: Needing to win the 18th hole late in the afternoon to extend his match with Limbhasut, Carlson muscled a 6-iron from 200 yards out in the right rough -- and a nasty lie -- to about 25 feet, making a nifty par. Limbhasut made bogey, and Carlson birdied the first playoff hole, No. 1, to keep his title hopes alive.

Up next: Carlson faces off against Illinois' Dylan Meyer, ranked No. 35 in the world, at 1:30 p.m. Friday.

After that: If Carlson beats Gregory, he will play in Saturday's semfinals. The 36-hole final is Sunday.

TV: FS1 Friday; Fox Saturday-Sunday

Tickets: $20 for a daily pass