Cole Hammer showed no fear in putting his young golf game through a world-class test at last month’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.
Considering his age (15) and prior USGA experience (none), the young Texan acquitted himself well despite missing the cut. He shot an opening-round 77 on a day when the field scoring average was pushing 73 and his score was equal or better to that of Louis Oosthuizen, Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler.
His high-wattage smile and youthful exuberance endeared, while his game impressed.
"He's going to be really good,” said Pat Wilson, an aspiring tour professional who was grouped with Hammer during the first two rounds.
Dillon Baxter watched as well, but says the best part of his friend’s game was not on display.
“It’s his mind, no doubt,” said Baxter, 17, who first met Hammer about 18 months ago while playing Legends Junior Tour events in Texas. “Mentally he knows how to get the ball into the hole, knows how to win tournaments.”
That characteristic is sure to be tested as Hammer competes in this week’s U.S. Junior Amateur Championship, which begins Monday at Colleton River Golf Club’s Dye Course with two days of stroke play before shifting to match play on Wednesday.
Hammer insists he is ready and that personal expectations remain the same.
“I don’t think I have any different of a game; maybe my confidence is a little higher,” Hammer said. “My expectations of myself were pretty high before, but right now it’s just the experience that I had at the U.S. Open that could serve me well. But my expectations haven’t really changed.”
Gregg Hammer, Cole’s father, says the U.S. Open, a week in which his son played practice rounds with Brandt Snedeker, 2012 champion Webb Simpson, eventual winner Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler, did not change his son.
“Not at all,” Gregg Hammer said. “We talk about that week and have reflected on it quite a bit, but it really hasn’t changed anything. It was an incredible experience for him on so many levels.”
The media took to Hammer, who was the third-youngest competitor in U.S. Open history. He made national headlines, trended on social media, and Fox Sports even put together a quick-hitting video that rekindled hip-hop artist M.C. Hammer’s popular signature phrase, “Hammer Time.”
For even the most grounded of teens, such an experience can be quite heady. Hammer admits the week took more of a toll on him than he realized, and that perhaps he jumped back into the competitive fray too soon.
“It was a little bit hectic when I got back,” said Hammer. “But it’s started to calm down and I have started hanging out more with my friends on my off weeks and it’s been a good transition back into junior golf. “I still get a little bit of people looking at me and knowing who I am.”
If Hammer had any hint of on-course braggadocio about him post-Open, then it was quickly knocked out of him during a 17th-place finish at the Legends Junior Tour’s Byron Nelson Junior Championship two weeks later in Dallas. The following week he tied for seventh at the American Junior Golf Association’s Under Armour/Jordan Spieth Championship in Austin.
Those finishes helped him re-focus for the remainder of his summer, which will include next month’s U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields Country Club outside of Chicago.
Hammer’s introduction to golf came at age 2 when he would swing plastic clubs like so many toddlers. Later, his father and mother, Allison, both of whom have won club championships, helped expand his golf horizon. Around 5, Hammer played his first tournament, a U.S. Kids Championship event in Kingswood, Texas. He didn't win that week, but did drive the first green and made the putt for eagle.
“That was a cool start to junior golf,” he said.
Hammer flirted with baseball for a while, but in recent years has opted to focus on golf. He already has announced his intentions to play for the University of Texas in 2018.
“I’m not really sure if there’s been a moment when it has all really clicked for him,” Gregg Hammer said. “He loved being out there at tournaments and being competitive and had some success early like a lot of these kids have. You still don’t know at this point if any of them will be successful.”
Baxter, who is caddieing for Hammer this week, is hedging his bet. The 17-year-old SMU recruit first took note of Hammer’s mental acumen in November’s Jackie Burke Cup at Champions Golf Club in Houston. The friends teamed to go 1-1 in the South’s 27-21 loss in the Ryder Cup-style match that pits the best of the Longhorn State’s juniors.
“It was like ‘Dang, he’s got something different, something special,’” Baxter said.
Who knows, this may just be the week that Hammer’s summer of incredible experiences results in a USGA championship victory.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.