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So close! UM's Carlson loses on 21st hole at U.S. Amateur

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Nick Carlson, left, fist bumps Curtis Luck of Australia after their play on the 11th hole during a semi-final round of the U.S. Amateur golf tournament Saturday at Oakland Hills Country Club.

Bloomfield Township — There was Nick Carlson, lying flat on his back on the 12th green, his 21st hole of the day, his 129th hole of the week. The dream, which began as a pipe dream, was over.

And the emotions soon finally got the best of him, as tears streamed down his tanned baby face during his post-round news conference.

But by early Saturday afternoon, Carlson was back in the clubhouse at Oakland Hills Country Club, dining with friends and family, chit-chatting with his admitted crush, Fox's Holly Sonders, and watching a television replay of himself playing some golf, laughing and smiling at the magical week it was for a kid from small-town west Michigan.

His amazing run officially ended with a 21-hole loss to Australian Curtis Luck in the U.S. Amateur semifinals, but the memories, they're not going anywhere.

"I told y'all yesterday that in my head, I won already," Carlson said. "I made it this far, and today was just about having fun and trying to hit good golf shots when it mattered.

"I think I did that."

USGA reaps rewards of Nick Carlson's amazing run

Carlson, 19, a Michigan sophomore, sure did, and never trailed in his semifinal match until the very last hole, the par-5 12th, which served as the third sudden-death hole of a fantastic match.

Luck, 20, reached the front of the green in two strokes, but Carlson, who's owned both par 5s most of the week, found the right-greenside bunker and blasted well short, to about 20 feet.

Luck lagged up close from about 60 feet, Carlson conceded the putt — and then, moments later, he watched as his effort to send the match to yet another hole just rolled by.

He dropped to his back, but was only down for a matter of seconds. He popped right back, embraced Luck — who will play Oklahoma's Brad Dalke in Sunday's 36-hole championship match — and then applauded the mammoth gallery, which circled every green about six- or seven-deep by the time it was over.

"Go Blue!" Carlson shouted before walking off the green, where Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel was waiting for a quick but touching embrace.

"It gives me a lot of pride, just the way he handled pressure, the way he overcame," said Manuel, who walked nine holes with Carlson on Friday and most of the match Saturday. "I saw him up until yesterday when the weather had a break in play (at No. 10). He was 2-down and then my staff's keeping me posted. I had an event with my wife. I looked up at my phone and he had won. And my wife was getting on me because we were sitting at the dinner table.

"And they sent the video of the chip-in (at No. 14), and I told her what I was looking at, and she said, 'Well, let me see!'

"Just a lot of pride, man, in that kind of effort and the way he handled everything."

Carlson — who's ranked 1,981st in the world among amateurs because he doesn't have the means to earn points by traveling all over the country and world to play in big tournaments — beat the Nos. 6-, 35- and 43-ranked players in his journey to the semifinals. And he had his chances to get past Luck, who's ranked seventh, and earn automatic exemptions in the 2017 Masters and U.S. Open.

But a late slip-up over the final two holes of regulation gave Luck new life, and he took advantage, but not without Carlson, all 5-foot-5, going down without a fight.

The playoff began on the par-4 10th, where Carlson made par, and looked like he might advance right there. But Luck made a clutch 10-footer to send the match to the par-4 11th.

Carlson impresses with sportsmanship on ninth-hole flap

And that's where the real fun began.

With Luck in the right fairway bunker, Carlson hit first from the fairway, about 140 yards out. And while he blocked the shot about 15 paces right of his aiming point, it found the green and spun back to a front cup, to about 3 feet, the crowd roaring louder and louder with each backward rotation.

Luck answered impressively, blasting his approach from 135 yards with a gap wedge to about 5 feet behind the cup, and making the bender to halve the hole and send it one more.

"His second shot into 11, I didn't have an option," Luck said. "It was a gimme. I didn't give it to him because I'm naughty like that, but yeah, that was a gimme.

"He was always going to make that. I can't think of anything that would replace that (approach shot)."

Nick Carlson tosses his club after a missed putt on the 10th green.

One hole later, Luck was moving on, and Carlson was accepting his semifinalist medal and preparing to head home to Hamilton, about two hours west of Oakland Hills.

Carlson — barely a top-four golfer on his own college team — beat out 308 others to get into the semifinals, after more than 7,000 tried to just qualify for this tournament.

And he was a 4-foot putt from playing for the championship.

At the par-3 17th, Carlson found the right bunker, and Luck found the even-further right rough. Luck flopped it nicely, but it got by the hole and ran some 60 feet by.

Carlson then hit just the latest great short-game shot of his week — which included two highlight chip-ins, one that got him into match play, another that helped send him to the semifinals.

Luck did well to lag his putt to tap-in range for bogey. Then Carlson stepped up, and lipped out, sending the match to the 18th, where he was 1-up.

"I had a putt to win it on 17. It would have been cool to make, but my nerves and adrenaline got the best of me, but that's fine," Carlson said. "I stood on (the) 18 tee telling my caddie, 'We're going to aim at that blue spruce right there, then we're going to try to cut off of it,' and it went dead straight. I hit the blue spruce. Can't get too upset with that.

"Unfortunately it was right under it."

Carlson had to chip left-handed just to get the ball out from under the tree. Then he sailed his approach from the right rough to the rough right of the green, short-siding himself.

Luck had a nasty shot of his own, with his tee ball coming to rest on a mound, about 2 feet above a fairway bunker. He hit into the bunker short left of the green.

Needing to get up-and-down for bogey, Carlson hit an impressive flop shot that ran about 12 feet past, but he missed the putt and made double. Luck's bogey squared the match.

And they were off to overtime, Carlson's third extra-hole match — out of five — this week.

"I just dug deep every time I got down, and then through the playoff, it was just a grind," Luck said. "It worked out in my favor."

Carlson led 2-up after three holes — and after the turn.

Luck squared with a par at the 10th and another birdie at the 11th, before they halved the 12th. Luck then stepped up to the 189-yard, par-3 13th and hit a great shot, putting the pressure on Carlson's shoulders, really, for the first time all day.

Carlson, 8-iron in hand, answered with his best shot of the day, to about 4 feet. He made it, Luck missed, and Carlson was back to 1-up.

They traded the next two holes, setting up one more dramatic finish for the kid from down the road, who never really expected to do what he did all week at Oakland Hills.

He stole the show, a show that's over — but not soon forgotten. He earns automatic exemptions into the next two U.S. Amateurs: in 2017 at Riviera and 2018 at Pebble Beach.

"I was in the top four. Are you kidding me?" Carlson said, with a smile, his cheeks still glistening from the tears. "7,500 people have tried to get into this tournament through qualifiers and whatnot, and then 312 to start the week.

"Are you kidding me? That's like the greatest thing ever."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984

U.S. AMATEUR

When: Monday-Sunday

Where: Oakland Hills Country Club, Bloomfield Township

Saturday: In the semifinals, Australia's Curtis Luck beat Michigan's Nick Carlson in 21 holes; Oklahoma's Brad Dalke beat Southern California's Jonah Texeira, 3-and-2

Shot of the day: With Luck in close at the par-3 13th hole — a tough hole for Carlson all week —  the kid from Hamilton, Michigan, pulled an 8-iron and stuck it to 4 feet to win the hole and take a 1-up lead.

Up next: Sunday's 36-hole final between Luck and Dalke, which starts at 9 a.m.

TV: Fox, 3-6 p.m.

Tickets: $20 for a daily pass