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Flanagan is surprise US Amateur winner

Even Nick Flanagan knows this couldn't happen. A blue-collar kid from Australia simply doesn't pick up some golf clubs, start fiddling around, then win the U.S. Amateur a few years later.

Somehow it did, and the most surprised person of all after one of the most improbable upsets ever in amateur golf was Flanagan himself.

Flanagan became the latest out-of-nowhere winner in this summer of golfing surprises, recovering after squandering a four-hole lead Sunday to win the only playoff hole and upset Casey Wittenberg to win amateur golf's biggest prize.

The kid from Down Under turned the U.S. Amateur upside down.

``I wasn't even playing that well when I got here,'' he said. ``I honestly really have no idea how I have won, but I have.''

Flanagan never trailed in what became a 37-hole match. But the top-ranked Wittenberg seemed to seize the momentum after winning two of the final four holes during the afternoon round, including No. 18, to force the playoff.

But Wittenberg hit a 3-wood into the rough on the 462-yard No. 10, and his second shot found the rough again. Flanagan hit an excellent drive, an approach to 25 feet, then calmly two-putted to win the championship he felt was beyond his skill level.

``Casey's a guy that knows where he wants to go. He's not going to let anybody stop him,'' Flanagan said. ``I really didn't think I would be able to beat him and, luckily, I might have gotten him on an off day.''

British Open winner Ben Curtis and PGA Championship winner Shaun Micheel have nothing on the 19-year-old Flanagan -- the third youngest champion in the U.S. Amateur's 103-year history and, certainly, one of the most unexpected.

Flanagan was a total unknown in the United States until arriving in early June with two Australian buddies to play the amateur circuit, taking only one week off since. In a sport where many stars grow up knowing each other from a relatively young age, Wittenberg didn't even know who Flanagan was until seeing him on the practice tee Saturday.

``I am extremely disappointed in the way that things turned out,'' Wittenberg said. ``I played poorly all day. ... I made it to the finals at age 18 and, what's disappointing is you could be the best player for the next three or four years and not make it to the finals. That's just the way match play is.''

Flanagan is the first Australian to win the Amateur in 100 years -- Walter Travis won in 1903 -- and he did so in fabled Oakmont Country Club's 100th year.

Just as Travis did, Flanagan won only a few years after first picking a golf club. He didn't start playing regularly until watching Tiger Woods win the 1997 Masters, an extremely short time to learn how to play so well.

Once he picked up the sport, the son of a coal mine electrician and a grocery store clerk sneaked onto courses because he rarely had the money to play. His first significant victory came in the 2001 Australian schoolboys championship.

The 18-year-old Wittenberg, by contrast, is a golfing prodigy, one nursed and molded by father Jim, a former PGA Tour pro. Wittenberg has spent the last four years at the renowned Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla., grooming his game, and he plays with a poise and calm rarely seen in one so young.

Perhaps that's why the Oklahoma State freshman appeared so unfazed by the big deficit, he didn't even unbutton the top button on his Cowboys-orange shirt. No wonder -- he rallied from deficits of four and three holes earlier in the tournament, and he has been the dominant golfer on the summertime circuit, winning the Terra Cotta, the Southern Amateur and the Porter Cup.

As his father said before the match, ``He knows what he's here for.''

Flanagan didn't have any idea what he was doing in the final, yet seemed more relaxed and in touch with his game than the polished Wittenberg, who lives on a TPC course in Memphis and regularly plays with PGA Tour pros.

Remarkably, Flanagan barely got into the Amateur. He finished third among the three qualifiers Aug. 5 in Cincinnati to make the 312-man tournament, then survived a playoff to reach the field of 64 for match play. Once he got there, he played with a growing confidence on a challenging golf course he never heard of until a couple of years ago.

Flanagan seized the momentum by winning the first two holes during the morning round. Wittenberg came back to tie it at No. 6, but Flanagan won three straight holes from No. 15 through No. 17 and led by four holes at the break.

Only Woods has pulled off such a comeback in a match play final, rallying from five down to win in 1996 and four down in 1994.

So, rather than resting, Wittenberg went to the practice range in a frantic effort to regain his game.

``I hit a bunch of balls and tried to get back some rhythm,'' Wittenberg said. ``I just couldn't find it.''

Flanagan relied on an almost flawless short game to keep a safe lead throughout the afternoon, at least until he missed a tough 8-footer for par on No. 15, a 499-yard par 4, to cut his lead to one hole.

Flanagan, from Lake Macquarie in New South Wales about two hours from Sydney, could have closed it out on the 313-yard No. 17. But he missed a 10-footer for birdie and Wittenberg halved the hole by sinking his 2-footer for par.

Flanagan then bogeyed No. 18, 484-yard par 4, when he drove into the rough and needed two wedge shots to get onto the green.

``The nerves got to me the last couple of holes,'' Flanagan said. ``I just wanted to get it over and done with, because I was a nervous wreck. ... If I ever feel this much pressure again, I'll be very surprised.''

No more surprised than he was at winning.

``It blows my mind, really, just to think about it,'' he said.

 

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