by Tom Cade
This was a match that wasn’t lost by a player. Rather, it was won by a player.
No shots were given away. No sloppy play. No give. No take. Quality championship golf, shot after shot.
In Devon Bling’s 1-up victory over Isaiah Salinda in this morning’s semifinal match of the 2018 U.S. Amateur held this week at Pebble Beach, the scorecard showed Bling had shot 65 and Salinda 67.
Yes, the play was that good.
The two players traded pars on the first two holes, and then they started lighting it up.
For the first time all week, the par-4 third hole was playing from the forward tee, making it a 286-yard downhiller. Both players hit 3-wood, with Bling knocking it on and Salinda landing in the right fringe. Birdies.
On the next hole, the 338-yard par-4, Bling hit iron off the tee, caught it heavy, and ended up in the front fairway cross-bunker, not even reaching the fairway. His next shot could almost already be labeled the shot of the match. From 151 yards, he clipped the ball cleanly out of the bunker and it stopped four inches from the hole for a conceded birdie.
Bling won the next hole, a 195-yard par-3, when Salinda struck his only mis-hit of the match, pushing his tee shot onto the beach, giving the hole the Bling, who suddenly had a 2-up advantage.
Salinda won the next two holes to square the match, but then Bling birdied five of the next seven holes. Salinda tried to keep pace, matching Bling’s birdies on holes 10 and 11. But time and again, Bling hit high arching shots that fell out of the fog-shrouded sky to land within 10 feet of the hole, putting constant pressure on Salinda.
Salinda missed a six-foot birdie try on 15, but then dropped an 18-footer on 16 to cut Bling’s lead to 1-up.
After pars on the par-3 17th, the two players split the fairway on the par-5 18th. “That was my best drive of the week on that hole,” Salinda said. From 210 yards, Bling, hitting first, put is second shot on the front edge of the green. Salinda had 204 to the flag. “I came over the top on the shot,” he said afterward. “I was aiming at the middle of the green, trying to ride the wind and kind of cut it in there. It wasn’t that bad, but just pulled it.”
His ball ended up in the left greenside bunker. But Bling was further away, so he putted first, leaving himself five feet. Needing the win the hole to extend the match, Salinda then caught the sand heavy coming out of the bunker, and was still looking at 12 feet.
The two competitors then both two-putted, settling for pars, and the match went to Bling.
“It was a really fun week,” an exhausted Salinda said afterward, about playing in his first USGA national championship of any kind. “I didn’t really know what to expect coming into this week, but once I made it to match play, I thought, you know, I had a pretty good chance, and kept advancing. I played well today. That’s all I could ask for.”
When told of the scores the two players shot in the match, Salinda said, “Devon played awesome. I think I only made one bogey, and we both made a ton of birdies.”
Making it to the semifinals gives Salinda an exemption into the 2019 U.S. Amateur, which will be held at Pinehurst. “Yeah, that’s nice,” he said. “I’m already looking forward to that. I’ve only been there once. I haven’t played their No. 2 course, so that’ll be fun.”
What will Salinda get from his experience this week at Pebble Beach, and from his victory last month in the Pacific Coast Amateur? “I’m really excited to get back to school,” he said. “Just try to ride the momentum. It’s good for me, but I feel like it’s also good for my team, for them too. They’ve been encouraging me a lot, and I think they realize they could have been doing this too. It gives them a lot of confidence, as well.”