Hammer, 15, One of Six to Punch U.S. Open Tickets in Dallas
By Mark Button
Fifteen-year-old Cole Hammer wanted to test his game Monday against a strong group of competitors trying to qualify for the 115th U.S. Open. Thirty-six holes later, Hammer, a high school freshman from Houston, found out he not only can play with the pros, he can beat them.
With rounds of 64-68 at historic Northwood Club, Hammer was one of six players to earn a trip to Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash., for next week’s U.S. Open. Hammer, who turns 16 on Aug. 28, would become the third-youngest competitor in the U.S. Open, behind Andy Zhang (2012, age 14 years, 6 months) and Tadd Fujikawa (2006, 15 years, 5 months, 7 days).
“This means the world to me,” said Hammer. “I never would have imagined this would happen. I was a bit of a long shot today, but why not give it a shot?”
Hammer’s 8-under-par 132 finished one shot out of medalist honors. That went to Mark Silvers, a Web.com Tour player from Thunderbolt, Ga. Silvers shot rounds of 66-65 for 9-under 131, then jumped into a car and headed to the airport to get to Ohio for the next Web.com Tour event.
The other four qualifiers – all at 6 under par – were Matt Mabrey, an amateur from Little Rock, Ark.; Cody Gribble, a University of Texas graduate from Dallas; Jason Allred, of Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Kyle Jones, an amateur from Snowflake, Ariz.
A winner of three recent junior tournaments, Hammer started his day with a bogey-free 64 that featured six birdies. Four of them came on the incoming nine of the tight, tree-lined course in north Dallas that hosted the 1952 U.S. Open won by Julius Boros.
“I’m hitting it really well, and my putter feels good,” Hammer said during the short lunch break between rounds.
Two of Hammer’s recent wins came on the Legends Junior Tour conducted by the Texas Golf Association. He won the Jimmy Demaret Junior Classic in Austin and the Bluebonnet Championship in Brownwood. Hammer also won a 54-hole Junior PGA Championship qualifier in Arlington, Texas, just a few days prior to Monday’s qualifier.
Perhaps more instrumental to earning his way into what will be the biggest championship of his life was the 2014 HP Byron Nelson Junior Championship, which was played at Northwood last July. Hammer said his experience on the 6,929-yard, par-70 track paid dividends, even though he’s not the same golfer he was just 11 months ago.
He’s not quite the same person, in fact.
A recent growth spurt saw Hammer shoot up 4 inches and add 15 pounds to his wiry frame. At 5-foot-9, 125 pounds, he’s still less than imposing. But he has been hitting his driver some 20-30 yards farther than last summer.
“With my irons going into greens, I had two or three clubs less than last year at the Nelson Junior,” said Hammer, whose father Greg caddied for him while his mother, Allison, walked the fairways in support. “I played here last Wednesday, too, and seeing the course again helped me feel even more comfortable,” said Hammer.
Hammer wasn’t as at ease with six holes to play. He posted his second bogey of the day on the 186-yard, par-3 12th hole to drop back to 5 under overall, which put him dangerously close to slipping out of the top six spots.
“I knew I needed a few more birdies coming in,” he said.
That’s why Hammer opted to bomb a 3-wood from 250 yards on the par-5 14th when his dad suggested that he lay up with an iron. He flushed the 3-wood to the middle of the green and two-putted for birdie. He followed that with a 10-foot birdie on No. 15 to get to 7 under, well within the qualifying line.
However, Hammer missed the green on the par-3 16th and short-sided himself. A bogey there brought the nerves back to the surface. Hammer rose to the occasion, however. He poured in a 12-foot birdie on the penultimate hole and then stuffed a short iron to 4 feet on the 18th. He tapped in his fourth birdie in five holes to close out what he called the biggest event he’s played in to date.
“My goal coming into today was just to test my game against these professionals,” said Hammer, who verbally committed to Texas two years ago. “When I saw Jordan Spieth win the Masters, that was a big inspiration. I said, ‘OK, I have to get better.’”
It took a little coaxing – he is only 15 – but when asked what he learned about his game relative to professionals, Hammer said, “I learned that I can compete with them.”
He did better than that, of course. He beat out 76 of the other 77 players.
Gribble earned a return trip to the U.S. Open after finishing in a tie for 21st last year at Pinehurst No. 2. Currently on the Web.com Tour, Gribble has posted three top-25 finishes this season.
“How many guys can say they qualified for the U.S. Open in back-to-back years?” Gribble said. “I did it the hard way, too. Of course I wanted to go back. It’s kind of funny looking back at it now; the U.S. Open last year really was what kick-started my career and got me to where I am on the Web.com Tour. I’m excited to go back.”