Golf: A little humor goes a long way for runner-up

The dire situation Bradley Lankler found himself in was no joke, but a joke actually helped him get out of it.

Some golfers might have panicked over being down four holes just five holes into match play in the 36-hole final of the 115th Met Amateur Championship. Not Lankler.

Asked what was going through his mind during that rocky start to Sunday’s final at Laurel Links Country Club, Lankler replied: “It wasn’t necessarily panic. It was more just curiosity. I couldn’t understand what was going wrong and I knew there was no point in getting mad at myself because that would just only make things worse.”

So, Lankler turned to humor to loosen up. In the middle of a fairway, he cracked a joke with his caddy, Nick Branchina, and went to work.

Lankler, 21, of Westfield, N.J., showed courage and resilience in representing Fiddler’s Elbow Country Club (N.J.). He gnawed away at Matt Mattare’s lead and even held the lead for nine of the final 15 holes before seeing Mattare triumph down the stretch, 1-up, for his first Mat Am Championship crown.

Lankler’s birdie attempt from beyond 10 feet slid by the cup on the 18th. Then Mattare sank his three-footer, reached down, pulled the ball out of the cup, bit his lip and gave a small fist pump with his right arm.

That was the difference between first and second place.

“It’s incredible,” said Lankler, who played 126 holes from last Thursday through Sunday. “We played so much golf over this past week and it came down to one putt on 18. Welcome to the game of golf.”

Mattare, 31, of Jersey City, N.J., was 2-up after the 18-hole morning round. But then Lankler turned the tables on his opponent from Darlington Golf Course (New Jersey) by winning four of the first five holes (three with birdies) in the afternoon round to go 2-up himself.

Much of the final round teetered between the players being all square or Lankler 1-up. Lankler led 1-up as late as the 15th hole in the afternoon session.

“He dug a huge hole and dug out by playing great golf,” said Mattare, who won the 16th — the shortest par-4 on the course — with a birdie to even terms.

Both players had to negotiate substantial wind gusts. The par-5 17th hole was pivotal. Lankler pulled his tee shot into the water, ending up with a bogey. Mattare slid a birdie try five feet past the hole, but then found the cup for a 1-up lead.

Mattare, who originally had not planned on entering the tournament, could sympathize with Lankler. In 2012 Mattare was a Met Amateur Championship runner-up.

How big is the difference between being a champion as compared to a runner-up?

“It’s huge,” Mattare said. “I was in his shoes five years ago, and it’s an awful feeling, especially when it’s close and you just look back at this one shot, this one putt, and it eats you up and there’s nothing you can say that’s going to make it better for a while, but as time passes, you appreciate it being a hell of a run.”

It was the first Met Amateur Championship title for Lankler, who couldn’t complain too much about his day. In the end he was presented with a fine piece of hardware for his efforts: a beautiful crystal bowl.

“I thought I played great,” he said. “I was happy with my game coming in. I knew I could compete. Honestly, I didn’t think I’d make it this far, so it was kind of cool, just taking it for what it is. I hit a lot of great iron shots today. There was nothing I could do wrong with the irons. I felt like I just couldn’t get the putter as hot as I thought I could.”

Lankler, who was cheered on by his parents, Beth and Andrew, is a methodical player with professional aspirations who carefully scrutinizes his shots. He came off a senior season playing for Franklin & Marshall College (Pennsylvania). In May he tied for fifth place in the NCAA Division III Championship.

After Sunday’s play, he said, “I never really put my name on something, so this was a big deal for me.”

And that’s no joke.

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Photo caption: Bradley Lankler sizing up a putt on the edge of the green during Sunday’s final at Laurel Links Country Club. (Credit: Bob Liepa)