This story recounting the 2003 U.S. Amateur Championship is the sixth in a 16-part series detailing every USGA championship contested at Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh. Nick Flanagan’s victory over Casey Wittenberg was the 13th USGA championship at the club, which is hosting its ninth U.S. Open in June.
Flanagan's Summer Tour of America Ends with 2003 U.S. Amateur Title
April 4, 2016
By Kevin Prise
It began with a putting lesson in a hotel room.
Nearing the end of a three-month stretch of golf and travel across the United States, Nick Flanagan had made it to Pittsburgh for the 2003 U.S. Amateur Championship at storied Oakmont Country Club.
The 19-year-old Australian had a few days to spend before stroke play started, so he made the five-hour drive to Rochester, N.Y., where the PGA Championship was being contested at Oak Hill Country Club. The goal was to see Tiger Woods play, and he did, albeit only for a couple of holes. Flanagan had been inspired to take up the game six years earlier after watching Woods win the Masters in record fashion.
During his visit, Flanagan ran into his coach, Steve Bann, who was in Rochester to work with fellow Aussie Stuart Appleby.
“I can’t remember exactly what the lesson was, but I went from a conventional grip to a left-hand low grip for the Amateur,” Flanagan said recently. “And then I just couldn’t miss all week.”
Indeed, Flanagan demonstrated a smooth stroke throughout the championship on Oakmont’s demanding greens. After making birdie on the final hole of stroke play to get into a playoff for the final match-play spots, Flanagan made a par on the first hole to move on. He continued to advance in the bracket, winning all six of his matches in narrow fashion, including the 36-hole final against incoming Oklahoma State freshman Casey Wittenberg, of Memphis, Tenn., that needed a 37th hole to be decided.
Flanagan became the first non-American champion since 1971, and the first Australian-born winner since Walter Travis in 1903.
Flanagan began the week as a relative unknown in America, but as he progressed toward the final, people became fascinated with his story.
He characterized the summer journey across America as “a three-month holiday with golf involved,” remembering one night in Seattle where he shared a two-bed hotel room with four other players. He traveled with fellow Australians James Nitties, Ben Bunny and Luke Hickmott, and sleeping on the floor was not uncommon.
“If you can imagine five golfers with five sets of clubs, travel bags, suitcases, all in one of those tiny little rooms … we did that quite a few times,” recalled Flanagan, now 31. “But it was fun back then. We were all young, didn’t have anything to worry about. However we could do it cheaply, we did it.”
Oakmont was the last stop on the journey, and a few of Flanagan’s compatriots had already flown back to Australia after failing to qualify. He had his own bed for the week, staying with family friends Lyn and Gary Whitehouse. He remembered getting a lot of rest each night – sometimes taking long baths – as his body wearied of the months of near-nonstop golf.
As Flanagan advanced at Oakmont, he drew energy from the growing support of his home country. Friends whom he hadn’t heard from in years were following online. Three or four local greenkeepers walked the course with an Australian flag and an inflatable kangaroo.
Flanagan even received a handwritten note from countryman Greg Norman, whom he had met just once, before teeing off in the final match against the 18-year-old Wittenberg.
Flanagan remembered beginning that match free of significant nerves, as he was still riding high from his semifinal win over David Oh that got him into the 2004 Masters and the 2004 U.S. Open. As the match entered its final nine, however, the magnitude of the situation kicked in.
Flanagan missed a 6-footer to win the match on the 35th hole, then bogeyed the par-4 36th hole to Wittenberg’s par, sending the match to extra holes. When Wittenberg found trouble on the first hole, a routine par was enough for the title.
“We were both tired from the long week, and he just had a little bit more than me that day,” recalled Wittenberg, who went on to compete in the Walker Cup Match a few weeks later.
Flanagan headed back to Australia with the Havemeyer Trophy to a whirlwind of media appearances, including a popular talk show called The Panel.
He returned to the United States in 2004 to play in the Masters and U.S. Open, then turned pro after The Open Championship later that summer, “maybe a year or two earlier than I had planned,” he admitted.
Flanagan has spent much of his pro career on the Web.com Tour, where both he and Wittenberg are currently competing with past-champion status. But that week at Oakmont will always be a career highlight.
“I just never thought I would be in position to win the U.S. Amateur,” said Flanagan. “Even though I was in the final, I still didn’t feel like I was going to win. But it all worked out in the end.”
Kevin Prise covers the Web.com Tour for pgatour.com.