In the all Ireland battle for the U.S Mid Am it was Malone’s Matt McClean who drew first blood and will take a 2up lead into Saturdays final 18 holes.
A victory by either McClean or Foley secures a spot in next year’s U.S. Open at The LA Country Club and a likely invitation up Magnolia Lane to compete in next year’s Masters Tournament.
McClean surged ahead on the inward nine of Friday’s opening 18 with three consecutive birdies – all conceded – from No. 12 as he took advantage of some sloppy play from his opponent. Still, McClean called his 206-yard, 7-iron approach shot from thick rough on the 12th hole that stopped 6 feet from the flagstick one of the best of his career.
Foley regrouped on No. 16, making a 30-foot birdie putt on the par 3, only to see McClean match him with a 13-footer. But on the par-5 closing hole, Foley gained one back when McClean made a mess of the hole, hitting eight shots before conceding Foley’s long birdie from the fringe.
“It’s nice,” said Foley of having more than a 12-hour break between rounds. “I’ll kind of enjoy the break now because I felt like nothing was really going for me out there, so it’s nice to stop it and maybe reset tomorrow. Hopefully it does reset tomorrow.
“I’m 2 down, so you get to become more of an underdog that way. I was saying to Dan (caddie), 3-down wasn’t too bad, and then birdied 16, had a good finish to get one back to 2. Momentum is huge in match play, and it definitely felt like it could have been worse out there for a little bit.”
Normally in a 36-hole final, players take a lunch break between rounds. This year, the finalists returned to the same house – they are staying at the residence of Foley’s caddie, Dan Benedum – and likely chatted about their performance at dinner.
“I haven’t played a 36-hole final before, so I don’t know what it’s like to play 36 holes in a final, either,” said McClean when asked about sleeping on a lead. “But it sort of feels like … the last round of stroke play; a similar sort of feeling as that.”
As for the dinner small talk, it might be a quiet evening in the Team Ireland house. “We’re staying at Dan’s house (Foley’s caddie) so we’ll see. I assume we might will talk about it a bit. We both have everything to play for tomorrow, so we’ll probably talk a bit about it.” Added McClean.
Foley and McClean travelled to the U.S. together and are sharing a rental car and a house.
“Insane,” said Foley of them both reaching the final. “We’ve been planning this for months. We heard [defending champion] Stewart Hagestad, No. 8 in the world [ranking], we were like, ‘I don’t know, will we make the cut?’ You’re traveling all that way and hoping you don’t miss the cut. Me and Matt have spent every second of the trip together.”
As for the prize on offer Foley is all too aware of the huge opportunity a win would bring.
“My mindset is not trying to avoid it. It’s there. We all know the Masters and the U.S. Open is the perk, so don’t avoid it, but don’t be afraid of losing it. If you win, it’s great; if you lose, to say I didn’t tighten up and I didn’t fall at the finish line. I think it’s just important to not banish it from your mind, just accept it as there but not be afraid of it.” Said the Royal Dublin man.
Earlier this summer, Foley, No. 195 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, edged McClean (No. 120) by two strokes to win the North of Ireland Men’s Open Amateur at Royal Portrush, shooting a pair of 68s on the weekend.
Foley also won the South of Ireland Men’s Open Amateur at Lahinch, becoming the first to win both titles since Darren Clarke in 1990. Since then, he finished second in the AIG Irish Amateur Close where he defeated McClean in the semi-final. With a 2 hole lead going into Saturday, McClean will look to wipe that slate and claim the U.S Amateur title and all that goes with it.
The second 18 is set for 7am local time 1pm Irish time on Saturday afternoon.