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A Tough Finish at Oakmont Doesn’t Diminish Bright Future for Mark Goetz

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After Northwestern’s David Nyjfall sank a lengthy putt on historic Oakmont’s final green, West Virginia’s Mark Goetz’s day was over. His week was over, and after securing the top seed in the Round of 64 at the 2021 U.S. Amateur Championship, his tournament was over. It would have been easy to walk off the course with his head low and his spirits dampened after a week of rainy weather.

Pittsburgh Golf Now‘s Matt Gajtka commended Goetz’s maturity and composure in the face of a tough result, Goetz’s character showing in being photographed shaking Nyjfall’s hand walking off the 18th green and speaking positively in the wake of his performance.

“I thought it was remarkable how well he handled the loss in the Round of 64,” Gajtka told WV Sports Now. “Just looking at what he said afterward, talking about how he’s taken it all as a positive and a learning experience, that’s hard to do half an hour after squandering a 3-up lead on the back nine.”

With a chance to clinch the first-round match on the 15th green, Goetz’s match-clinching putt couldn’t find the hole. A three-putt on 15 and a bogey on 16 saw his three-stroke lead evaporate to a playoff on the 18th green for the win. Before Goetz was able to make it a contest, Nyjfall sank a difficult put to add more heartbreak to Goetz’s polarizing career at Oakmont.

In 2018, Goetz held a six-stroke lead in the West Penn Open, but an implosion on the back nine clinched defeat from the jaws of victory. He righted the loss with a win at the 2020 West Penn Open and a runner-up at the 2021 iteration, but last Thursday’s loss has to sting.

Regardless of the result at the U.S. Amateur, Gajtka was impressed with Goetz’s composure all week. With a lot of eyes on him all week, Goetz kept his head on straight, selected his shots and chances with the correct balance of aggression and caution and proved he more than belonged at the world’s premier amateur golf tournament. Gajtka said Goetz not only has the skill but the mental fortitude to lock into the task at hand.

A Dream Start at Longe Vue

Goetz is no stranger to Oakmont Country Club, growing up 30 miles away in Greensburg, Pa., and has turned Oakmont into his backyard course — home away from home at Hannastown Golf Club — with quite a few rounds played at one of the most difficult courses in the country.

However, he began the week with a round at Longue Vue Club in Verona, Pa. With a six-under 64 at Longue Vue on Monday, he was set up well for the second day of preliminaries at Oakmont. He followed up his strong start with a round-best two-under 68 at Oakmont, carding just a single bogey on the way to clinching a medalist honor as the top finisher of prelims.

With dozens of friends and family watching Goetz, he was able to outduel the entire 312-man field and earn the top spot.

It all began at Longue Vue with nearly a perfect round of golf from Goetz. An eagle on the par-5 4th hole got his day off to a fast start, and he kept his momentum going with a bogey-free round (four birdies) on Day 1. With back-to-back birdies on the first two holes at Oakmont, he made a statement early on Day 2. A bogey, his only of the prelims, on the par-4 5th kept him in the chase and a birdie on the par-4 17th gave him the one stroke needed to surpass Harvard’s Brian Ma and claim the tournament’s top prelim score.

As if carding an eight-under 132 over the two days of play at Longue Vue and Oakmont to claim a medal wasn’t enough, Goetz celebrated his 23rd birthday on Tuesday right in the middle of prelims.

Unfortunately for Goetz, the party wasn’t able to continue. His hot streak carried through the first 14 holes of his Round of 64 match-up with Nyjfall, but the back-and-forth contest eventually tilted Nyjfall’s way. Goetz took a decisive 3-up lead over Nyjfall after the 14th hole, but he was unable to put the match away on 15. A missed match-clinching putt spiraled into a three-putt that opened the door for Nyjfall. And he didn’t hesitate to step through.

Bogies on 15, 16, 17 for Goetz allowed Nyjfall to climb back into the match, and his excellent putt on 18 put the match away. “It didn’t work out in match play, but match play can be a crapshoot, and a lot of times, your opponent can pull some shots out of the bag and it can throw you for a loop,” Gajtka said.

Unfortunately for Goetz, Nyjfall was able to pull together a phenomenal final four holes in comparison to his own slide. Such is the nature of golf.

How Goetz Was Able to Lead the Way

Golf is a mental game. It’s physically taxing, but the mental strain can be overwhelming without a strong head on your shoulders.

Goetz’s week wasn’t just the opportunity to show he’s completely locked in despite some close calls and tough losses, but the opportunity to show his physical prowess is enough to match the iron-clad resolve.

“It was really a huge test for him,” Gajtka said. “There was some pressure being in his hometown, or close to his hometown, but maybe that was evened out by he just felt so comfortable playing those two courses.”

Gajtka was impressed by how intelligently Goetz played at Longue Vue, capitalizing on a more forgiving course before dialing in on one of the most difficult courses in the country. Goetz drew a favorable draw on Monday, getting to play on a relatively calm day before the rains really caused some havoc, and he didn’t let the chance pass him by.

On Day 1 at Longue Vue, Goetz was able to capitalize on the course’s scoreable par-5s, dropping four strokes in the process. He eagled the 550-yard par-5 4th hole and birdied the other two par-5 holes on the course to help lead to his second place standing after Day 1. With the way he was able to maximize his game, Gajtka said he put himself in a great position early.

“I wouldn’t say he’s the longest player out there, but he’s definitely plenty long and he has a great ball-striking ability,” Gajtka said. “He did extremely well on the par-3s last year at West Virginia.”

While Goetz’s driver ability isn’t going to draw eyes like some of the players on the tour, his ability to really tee up and strike balls really impressed Gajtka. He used his ball-striking to put himself into the best position possible heading into Day 2, and he delivered when he made it to a softer, rain-soaked Oakmont.

“It was a combination of good form, some familiarity [with the course] and just a guy playing well,” Gajtka said. “It looks like he has really good control of his swing.”

While the Round of 64 exit might sting and take away from an otherwise remarkable week of golf, Gajtka said his performance really put his name on the map when it comes to future amateur tournaments. Goetz has always been a good golfer, Gajtka said, but his performance puts him on a path that he might not have been on at the start of his senior season.

What’s Next for Goetz and West Virginia?

If anyone had been watching Goetz’s senior season, his U.S. Amateur performance likely wouldn’t have come as a shock.

Back in April, Goetz ran away with the Mountaineer Invitational to pick up his first NCAA victory. He played well enough all season to become the first Mountaineer to be invited to the NCAA regionals, and if not for Purdue’s Cole Bradley, he’d have advanced to the NCAA national championship following his stellar eight-under 208 over the three-round event. It was all in the midst of becoming WVU’s first-ever All-American golfer.

Gajtka feels like Goetz’s strong summer, playing well in multiple amateur tournaments, will carry over into his final season at WVU very nicely.

After a disappointing overall season for WVU in 2020, marked by injuries and inconsistency, he is primed to deliver as the top golfer at WVU and help the Mountaineers make some noise in a loaded Big 12 conference in 2021. He should be one of the best golfers in the conference this season.

“If he can translate what he’s done over the past six months or so into a strong fall, then he’s definitely going downhill once we get back to spring,” Gajtka said. “It’s definitely a little more difficult for West Virginia when it comes to dealing with the winter as opposed to some other schools in the league, but he’s used to that. There are some indoor facilities where he can keep his skills sharp.”

Continuing his upward trajectory moving forward, Gajtka isn’t predicting whether he’ll win big invitationals in the year to come, but he fully expects to see him at the top of leaderboards at every event he plays in for WVU. With his match play result notwithstanding, Goetz’s stroke play results bode well for the season, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t translate to NCAA golf.

With Goetz as the clear No. 1 and a strong mix of veteran returners and newcomers with the potential to make an impact, the chance for WVU to improve in 2021 is very high.

“This year should be better, just in terms of depth, looking at what they have coming back and perhaps even what they have coming in. … If you have to sketch it out, yeah, I think WVU has a pretty good chance to be at least middle of the pack in the Big 12 if things go well,” Gajtka said.

The Future for Goetz After West Virginia

Goetz hopes to become a professional golfer, and the dream of every professional golfer is to make the PGA Tour. It’s just easier said than done to actually make the Tour, and a lot of luck goes into finally being afforded that prestigious chance.

That doesn’t mean Goetz will not eventually earn a chance on the Tour, but Gajtka said it’s impossible to predict such a thing. While watching the U.S. Amateur all week, he said very, very few shots actually looked like they were hit by amateurs. For all intents and purposes, these were professionals battling it out in Western Pa. last week.

While the PGA Tour may be the far-off goal, the Korn Ferry Tour may be the more realistic goal to start off. A developmental tour for the PGA Tour, the top players on the Korn Ferry could compete on the PGA Tour for wins in any given event. Gajtka feels there’s a great chance for Goetz to make a career out of being a professional golfer for at least several years.

“I think he’s got a good chance of making a decent career for himself on the Korn Ferry,” Gajtka said. “As far as PGA Tour, that’s the best of the best of the best, so you need some luck to get on there. I think a lot of the Korn Ferry guys, if they were to get onto the tour — to get their card, that’s the hard part — then they could perhaps string some results together, build some confidence and go from there.”

For now, it’s all about Goetz’s senior season at WVU, working to improve the areas where’s deficient and continuing to refine the areas where he’s excelled. Gajtka said it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint those areas, but Goetz has done a good job.

“It’s hard to find those areas in your game. You want to be as well-rounded as possible, but he has the hard part down,” Gajtka said. “He has the ball-striking, that sets the standard of play, as he told me a couple of months ago for that feature, but he’s been working with Rocco Mediate, a former PGA Tour pro and US Open finalist. … He’s got a good mentor there.”

Aside from working with Mediate, a PGA Tour pro with six career wins and famously battled Tiger Woods to a playoff in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego, Ca., he’s also worked with local professionals and teaching pros, Gajtka said, in order to work on his game.

Of course, there’s a long road ahead for Goetz. Yet a year ago, his current projection wasn’t what it is now. In another year, who knows where Goetz’s projection will be pointing.

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