Tiffany Joh couldn’t wait to watch the 2008 U.S. Open. While the South Course at Torrey Pines annually hosts a PGA Tour event, this was a major championship at an all-too-familiar layout.
“It was cool … because I had played tournaments at Torrey Pines,” said Joh, “but I hadn’t won at Torrey Pines.”
She won’t be uttering those words in June when the 117th U.S. Open comes to Erin Hills. Six days after Tiger Woods defeated Rocco Mediate in a memorable 19-hole playoff, Joh claimed the second of her two U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links titles at Erin Hills.
Only two golfers have won USGA championships at the 11-year-old daily-fee facility outside Milwaukee. Kelly Kraft claimed the 111th U.S. Amateur three years later.
“I’m stoked. I cannot wait to see it [on television],” said Joh, now in her seventh season on the LPGA Tour. “I am already creating my social media posts [for that week]. I can just start bragging.”
USGA officials thought so highly of Erin Hills that it was awarded the 2008 WAPL before it opened in 2006.
“It’s beautiful,” said Kraft of his first impressions of the property. “It was just a cool place to be.”
Joh, the 2006 WAPL champion, was coming off an All-America season at UCLA, with runner-up finishes in the Pacific-10 Conference and NCAA championships.
Something was definitely “Bruin” at Erin Hills, with eight current or future UCLA golfers advancing to match play. In the Round of 32, Joh drew teammate and close friend Sydnee Michaels. On the eve of their match, the two dined with their moms at a popular local restaurant, and drove through McDonald’s for an ice cream sundae. Michaels, one car in front, paid the cashier an extra 50 cents to have her tell Joh, “I’m rooting for Sydnee.”
By morning, both players could feel the tension on the first tee. Even the jovial Joh had her game face on. But early in the match, the ice was broken when the two players saw their moms jousting with their umbrellas. They couldn’t contain their laughter.
“It was probably the most fun, yet hardest match I’ve ever played,” said Joh of her 3-and-2 victory. “I felt [after that match] this better be my week.”
Joh vanquished two future Bruin standouts – Lee Lopez and Tiffany Lua – in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively, and nearly faced a fourth in the 36-hole final, but incoming University of Southern California freshman Jennifer Song eliminated Stephanie Kono.
In the final, Song was in control until Joh won the 32nd hole with a two-putt birdie and holed a 15-footer for birdie for a 1-up lead on the 33rd (No. 15), the same hole that would be the turning point for Kraft.
Song’s three-putt bogey on the par-3 34th hole was the coups de grace in a 2-and-1 Joh win.
At the prize ceremony, Joh dedicated the victory to the father of her UCLA roommate who had died six weeks earlier from cancer. Beth Wallace and Joh had met freshman year in a speech class.
“It puts things in perspective,” said Joh of the dedication. “Winning a USGA championship is huge and it made a really big difference in my career, but at the same time it’s not life and death. We’re just chasing a ball around a field.”
Few would have noticed if Kraft had missed the cut in 2011. Although he had won a second Texas Amateur and Trans-Mississippi Amateur that summer, the three-time Conference USA Player of the Year from Southern Methodist University hardly was on anyone’s radar.
World No. 1 Patrick Cantlay, fresh off his low-amateur performance in the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club and a 60 in the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship, and Jordan Spieth, two weeks removed from winning a second U.S. Junior Amateur, were popular favorites.
Kraft, meanwhile, liked what he saw at Erin Hills: firm and fast conditions where par was a good score.
“I like courses where par is a premium score,” he said.
Kraft relished being the underdog, even after a 23-hole marathon win over No. 2 seed Blake Biddle in the Round of 16.
“After that match, it was kind of … well, this could happen,” said Kraft. Victories over Patrick Rodgers (6 and 4) and Jack Senior (3 and 2) set up the 36-hole final against Cantlay. Many saw this as a coronation for Cantlay’s brilliant summer.
“Nobody gave me a chance,” said Kraft.
His teammates, however, believed. On the eve of the final, the entire SMU golf team flew to Wisconsin, a group that included his roommate of five years, Aaron Stewart, the son of the late two-time U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart. Kraft’s girlfriend, Tia Gannon (they have since married), also came for the final.
Motivated and excited, Kraft went 4 up early, but Cantlay slowly chipped away, eventually grabbing a 1-up lead through 32 holes. At that point, experience figured to trump exuberance.
It didn’t happen. On the par-4 33rd hole, which was shortened to 257 yards, Cantlay made a tactical mistake. He decided to lay up with an 8-iron, only to find a fairway bunker. Kraft played aggressively with a 3-wood and when Cantlay made a mess of the hole, the match returned to all square. Seizing momentum, Kraft won the 34th, holed a clutch par putt to halve No. 35 and was conceded a par putt at the final hole for a 2-up win.
Kraft joined SMU golfers Hank Kuehne (1998) and Colt Knost (2007) on the Havemeyer Trophy. Bryson DeChambeau made it four Mustangs in 2015.
“It gave me a lot of confidence before I turned pro,” said Kraft, who won a Web.com Tour event in 2015, and finished second at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. “Pro golf … took me a little while to figure it all out, to get used to the travel and lifestyle. I feel I’ve gotten better ever since I have turned pro.”
Kraft hasn’t returned to Erin Hills since his 2011 run, and the prospect of making his U.S. Open debut there intrigues him.
“I still remember a lot of the golf course,” said Kraft. “I’m sure it will all come back to me. I’ll get up there eventually and hopefully this year for the U.S. Open.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.