Marc Holzhauer is back in his element.
The reigning International Junior Masters champion didn’t make it easy on himself, but his title defense is alive.
Holzhauer survived a 5-for-3 playoff to get into the top 32 on Wednesday at East Aurora Country Club, earning himself a spot in the championship round of match play.
From there, instincts kicked in for the 17-year-old from Clarence.
“I feel like I play a lot better in match play,” Holzhauer said. “Like today, I was probably 1- or 2-under in match play.”
That was good enough for a 1-up victory over Evan Gaesser. Holzhauer lost two of his first three holes, but perseverance has been his calling card in this tournament. He fought back to even, took a 2-up lead, then lost that before closing things out on the ninth hole.
“I knew I could come out here and shoot a good score, but the way the front nine and most of the back nine was going, it didn’t look like I was going to,” Holzhauer said. “But then I got it together.”
Even getting into the playoff at the end of stroke play was an unlikely accomplishment for Holzhauer. After making four bogeys on his first nine holes, Holzhauer made the turn and dropped two more shots.
“At that point, I knew I had nothing left,” he said. “I needed to go for it.”
A 60-foot birdie putt on the seventh hole (after starting on the back nine) was backed up with an 8-footer for birdie on the par-3 eighth hole. Facing a 9-foot birdie putt on the ninth, Holzhauer elected to play it safe, wagering that a two-putt would be enough to get him into a playoff.
The bet paid off when he made a routine par on the first extra hole to reach match play.
Holzhauer, who will play for Division-II Rollins College in the fall, finished his last two years of high school at Core Golf Academy in Winter Garden, Fla. He’s in the process of undergoing a swing change with instructor Tyler McGhie.
“I’ve been struggling, but when it comes to match play, it’s a different ball game,” he said. “I’m happy to be finally competing again. I haven’t played a tournament in a couple months.”
Although he’s seeded 30th, last year showed that when it comes to match play, those can be meaningless. Holzhauer beat the top three seeds on his way to victory. He’s one-third of the way there again, knocking out the No. 3-seed Gaesser.
“Last year I was a high seed, too,” he said, “so hopefully I can do it again.”
The top seed this year is another local player who is on fire at the moment. Elma’s David Hanes started his week by qualifying for the Porter Cup, and continued it by taking medalist honors after consecutive rounds of even-par 71 during stroke play.
“This is a good week,” said the 18-year-old. “I’ve been hitting the ball well and making some putts, so everything is looking good.”
Hanes said he took plenty of confidence from his round of 67 to get into the Porter Cup field, even though he hasn’t had much time to celebrate the confidence.
“I knew I could go low,” he said. “I haven’t had much time to think about any of it. I was right back out here at 7:45 the next morning.”
A recent St. Francis graduate who will play at Canisius, Hanes also has a home-field advantage on the Junior Masters field. He’s a member at both Crag Burn and East Aurora, so he’s got extensive course knowledge.
“I play this course a lot before this tournament,” he said. “You can’t hit driver wildly out here. You’ve got to know where not to hit it.”
Match play presents an opportunity to hit a few more drivers than stroke play, Hanes said, which led to him taking a more aggressive approach during his 5-and-3 win over Dean Naime in the round of 32. Hanes earned medalist honors with an even-par total of 142 for 36 holes, finishing in style when he chipped in for birdie on the 18th hole.
Not since Teddy Collins in 2003 has a player won both medalist during stroke play and the ensuing match play. Hanes is hoping to end that streak, and continue another of local winners.
“Mark’s a good friend of mine. We kind of give each other momentum,” Hanes said. “It would be awesome to follow his footsteps.”
Another local has a chance to do that, as well. East Amherst’s Ben Reichert earned the No. 8 seed after stroke play, and opened match play with a 4-and-3 victory over Ben Reichert.
Matthew Genaway of Darien Center was the lone local player to lose Wednesday in the round of 32, dropping a tough 1-up decision to Rochester’s Colin Dubnik.
No. 2-seed Danny Gianniny of Rochester was upset in match play, 6 and 5, by No. 31-seed Zack Mason of Toronto.
No. 5-seed Tyler Hull, who shot a 68 in the first round of stroke play to lead after 18 holes, was also eliminated in the round of 32, as Zachary Chaddock scored a 3-and-2 victory.
Play continues in the championship flight Thursday morning with the round of 16, followed by the quarterfinals in the afternoon. The semifinals and final will be held Friday.
The 16 players who lost in match play Wednesday will make up a consolation flight. The remaining 43 players will be grouped into gold, silver and bronze flights, following the same schedule as the championship flight.