MSU's James Piot to play for U.S. Amateur title; he's earned U.S. Open, Masters berths

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Mike Anderson was supposed to be flying to Los Angeles for three days of work meetings.

On Saturday afternoon, those plans changed. Instead, he was getting set to drive to suburban Pittsburgh to watch his former star golfer, James Piot, play for a U.S. Amateur championship.

"My son (Max) came home and said, 'Dad, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. You have to be there,' " said Anderson, Detroit Catholic Central's longtime boys golf coach. "This isn't ever going to happen again."

MSU's James Piot gets a hug from his caddie, MSU assistant coach Dan Ellis, after winning his semifinal at the U.S. Amateur on Saturday.

Piot, the Catholic Central alum, Canton native and Michigan State senior, used a back-nine surge to win his Saturday semifinal, 4 and 3, over North Florida's Nick Gabrelcik to advance to Sunday's 36-hole championship match at Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania.

The marathon finale begins Sunday morning, with the second half televised by Golf Channel and NBC. Piot will play North Carolina's Austin Greaser in the championship match, after Greaser held on for a 2-and-1 victory over Texas' Travis Vick.

Piot could become the first man born in Michigan ever to win the U.S. Amateur, which first was played in 1895. He'd be the second from a Michigan college to win it, after UM's Johnny Fischer in 1936.

"I just kept hitting greens and staying solid down the stretch," Piot said after closing out his match with a scrambling par at the long par-4 15th hole, made even longer when he had to lay up from a fairway bunker.

"You hit greens and fairways, it's hard (for your opponent) out here. I kept to that plan today."

For making the finals Piot, 22, is guaranteed a spot into the 2022 U.S. Open, and likely one in the 2022 Masters, as well. A win in the U.S. Amateur also will get him into the 2022 British Open, and earn him a 10-year exemption into the U.S. Amateur, though that's usually a moot award, because most winners don't remain amateurs after their collegiate careers.

Piot was the runner-up for medalist honors last year, his first U.S. Amateur. He lost in the Round of 32. Still, he kept his goals modest entering this week — making the 64-man match-play field.

He did that, and has steamrolled one unsuspecting foe after another, Gabrelcik his fifth and latest victim.

Gabrelcik pulled even in the match on 5, as Piot started making some wayward, block swings. Piot's woes continued on the tee at the par-3 sixth hole, where he pushed his tee shot way right and into a seemingly impossible position for par, shortsiding himself in the rough, with a bunker between himself and the hole.

But Piot made a 12-footer to stunningly par and halve the hole, and that seemed to turn the momentum.

Piot won four of the next five holes, making a 30-footer for birdie at the par-4 11th to go three holes up with seven remaining. It would take a miracle from Gabrelcik, and he didn't have it. He missed makeable birdie putts at Nos. 13 and 14, letting Piot away with halves and a still-bulky lead.

Piot opened the door slightly off the tee at the long, par-4 15th hole, finding the bunker off the fairway, his ball up against the lip. All he could do was lay up. But Gabrelcik's approach from the fairway found the tough greenside bunker on the right, and Piot made a 15-footer to end the match.

Up for grabs will be the championship trophy, the gold medal and an additional major-championship berth, though Piot was pretty excited about the ones he already had earned after Saturday's win.

"I still haven't processed it yet, but it's a great feeling," said Piot, who entered the week having won the Golf Association of Michigan Championship, the Michigan Medal Play at Detroit Golf Club and a college tournament at Indiana, among his three wins this calendar year.

"That's something you dream about as a kid, playing in a major ... it's definitely a highlight of my life so far."

Last week, Piot's schoolmate, rising sophomore Valentina Rossi, made the semifinals at the U.S. Women's Amateur at Westchester in upstate New York.

In high school, Piot was the star the moment he joined the golf team, helping lead Catholic Central to a runner-up finish his freshman year, then three straight team state championships to end his prep career.

He always was known as a relentless worker, Anderson said, wanting to stay and work on the range, or the putting green, or the chipping green, after practice or even matches — when many of his teammates were leaving for dinner or evening plans.

Piot had college offers down south, always appealing with the warm weather, but he stuck with Michigan State, which began scouting him when he was in eighth grade, and offered early in high school. He was Big Ten freshman of the year, and was first-team All-Big Ten as a sophomore and this past season, the first of his two senior years (the COVID-19 pandemic has allotted college athletes an additional year of eligibility).

Now he's got an opportunity to do something his idol, Jordan Spieth, never did — win the U.S. Amateur — with head coach Casey Lubahn watching, as well as current and former teammates, a bevy of Pittsburgh-area Spartans alum, and, after a travel-plans audible, Anderson.

"It's just so special," Anderson said of Piot, the 86th-ranked amateur in the world, set to play Greaser, ranked 82nd in the world. "It's unbelievable.

"If anybody deserves what's happening to him, it's him."

Twitter: @tonypaul1984