In the Nico Time...

Competitive stroke play golf becomes a different animal to different players when the unexpected happens. And thus unfolded the zoo that was the 103rd SCGA Amateur at El Caballero Country Club.

Oh, it wasn't that the guy who got out of the gate quickest and had a two-shot lead with only 18 holes to play (10 shots over all but four of the field) didn't win. Nicholas "Nico" Bollini, a 19-year-old USC sophomore claimed the title, all right.

But not before he wobbled home with a four-over-par 75, then was asked to dispatch two other collegians — defending champion John Merrick of UCLA and UC Irvine's Mike Lavery — in a three-way playoff. Each had finished in 2-under-par 282 over the Robert Trent Jones, Sr.-designed layout in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. Merrick, bidding to become just the seventh player in the event's 103-year history to win back-to-back titles, closed with a 1-under-par 70, while Lavery, staging an amazing rally from 10 strokes back, had a sparkling 65.

Bollini seemed poised to run away with the tournament after making a birdie on the first hole of the final round to take a three-shot lead over 1999 champion John Pate of Santa Barbara, the midway leader. Then strange things began to happen. Bollini played the next nine holes in seven-over-par.

"I think that stretch may have helped me because it made me think about the present and not look ahead," the former junior standout at Servite High School in Anaheim said later. "I thought, 'I can't cruise anymore, I have to make up some shots.'"

He was right. Four golfers held at least part of the lead at different junctures of the final round. The first to challenge Bollini was Standford senior Ron Won. He gained a share of the top sport after Bollini made double bogey on the par-3 eighth, and held the outright lead at 1-under-par after the 10th, but struggled home with four bogeys on the final eight holes. Won eventually tied for fourth at 286, 2-over-par, with 2000 champion Scott McGihon. "I'm disappointed with the way I played," said Won, the 1999 CIF-SCGA champion.

Merrick was next to jump into the lead after birdies on 11, 12, and 14 got him to 2-under-par. Equally critical for Merrick were a couple of par saves. On No. 13, he had to punch out of the rough to 80 yards, but sank his par putt after wedging to 15 feet. At the 419-yard 15th, the blond 20-year-old hit his second shot well over the green and chunked the shot coming back, but then holed a difficult flop shot for par. "That was one of the craziest holes I've ever played," he said.

The rest of the final round was a race to see who could catch the UCLA junior, who missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the last hole that would have given him the title.

The first to challenge was a resilient Bollini, who, after shooting 40 on the front nine and dropping his nine-iron shot into the lake fronting the par-3 10th on the way to double bogey, righted himself when he birdied No. 11 for the fourth time in three days. He also made a birdie on the par-three 16th.

"I knew at that point (after No. 10) some of the guys must have caught me," the winner said after the round. "I enjoy playing from behind, though. There is no pressure. You just have to try to make birdies."

Lavery's rally was a remarkable one. He started 10 strokes back and made them all up by the end of regulation. He birdied the equivalent of every other hole, including a final birdie putt at 18 for a round of 65 to become the final player in the back nine drama. Lavery jumped into the fray with birdies on 11, 12 and 13. "I was just trying to go as low as possible today, the UC Irvine senior said. "I hit the ball average, I just make a lot more putts than usual."

The Sunday final round was also the story of players whose bids ended in frustration — notably Pate, who had put together two consecutive 69s that left him 4-under-par. His caddy, former SCGA MId-Amateur champion Steve Lass, was convinced Pate would gather a second title, despite his player's own lack of confidence in his short game, especially the sandy variety. Said Lass: "As well as accomplished players handle bunker shots, it's a real point of dispute as to whether bunkers at U.S. courses are penal enough — after all they're supposed to be hazards. Well, with John's bunker game, they are — extremely hazardous to John's score."

Pate found himself in a fairway bunker at No. 2. Lass again: "We worked on bunker shots that morning. 'Hit it like a flop shot out of the rough,' I offered and John proceeded to hit eight of the most beautiful bunker shots I've ever seen to the practice green. At No.2, well..."

Pate chunked the first attempt. Then he picked the second bunker shot clean sending a 17-yard shot flying 95 yards into the impenetrabvle hillside underbrush. Pate one-putts for a 7 on his way to a no-plate 78.

Scott McGihon, who shed his "bridesmaid" tag with a triumph at Rancho Santa Fe GC in 2000, played the weekend rounds in a tidy 2-under-par, but had scraped enough of a hole Friday with a 4-over total to leave him four shots distant of the playoff and tied with Won.

Meanwhile, both Merrick and Bollini had chances to win in regulation. Merrick barely missed a 12-foot birdie putt and Bollini had a 25-footer for the title, but left it a foot short.

The first three-man playoff in SCGA Amateur history began on the 456-yard, par-4 ninth hole. Bollini hit the fairway, while Merrick and Lavery were in the left rough. Bollini, the first to hit, struck a high, drawing five-iron shot to within 15 feet. Lavery missed the green right, while Merrick landed on the green, 30 feet short of the flag.

From the right rough, Lavery left his chip 20 feet short and made bogey. Merrick's 30-foot birdie putt looked good all the way, but lipped out. "I was just trying to get the speed right," he said. "Two feet from the hole it was center cut and I thought it would catch a piece of it."

That set the stage for Bollini to win, but he pushed his birdie putt, so he and Merrick moved on to the 510-yard, par-5 first hole.

Merrick hit three-wood off the tee and found the center of the fairway, then Bollini unleashed a 320-yard drive that hugged the right edge. Merrick hit his second shot onto the left fringe, well below the hole. Bollini, impeded by trees, then hit a cut 4-iron to within 15 feet. Merrick's chip stopped two feet away, but Bollini sank his putt for eagle and the victory.

"When I sank the putt, it was a relief," Bollini said. "It would have been disappointing to have played so well in the tournament and lost."

He credited his dad, Frank, who caddied all four rounds, for his part in the victory. "He helped a lot," he said. "He was always there for support.

Winning the playoff also rescued him from a lot of heckling. "I have one friend who goes to UC Irvine and I know a lot of guys from UCLA," he said. "I definitely would've gotten some grief if I hadn't pulled it out."

Friday is always a long day in the SCGA Amateur Championsip format, with players battling through 36 holes with the aim of making the cut.

Scott Linklater of Goleta and Michael Turner of Van Nuys finished that day just three shots off the lead, Turner via a second round 69 that was marred by five three-putts. Merrick was at 144 and California Amateur champion Eddie Heinen (who never was able to mount a challenge with a sub-par round) at 145. Linklater disappeared with an 80 Saturday; Turner shot 77.

As temperatures cooled for the third round, Bollini heated up with a scintillating 6-under-par 65 and Merrick moved into serious contention at 212 after a bogey-free round of 68.

"I definitely got the most out of that round," said Bollini later. He hit only 11 greens but made a miniscule 22 putts in his round. "I really was able to take advantage of the par 5s, all of which are reachable."

On a day when he had no 5s on his sorecard, a major key to Bollini's round was his bunker play. He got up-and-down from five bunkers on the front side en route to a 2-under-par 34.

After the turn, Bollini — the 2001 Argentine Amateur champion and medalist in the previous week's North & South Amateur at Pinehurst — went birdie-eagle-birdie on holes 11-13. Bollini had a chance to tie Jay Don Blake's course record of 63, but missed birdie putt on the last two holes. Making no bogies was a key to his round, he said. At last year's SCGA Amateur at La Jolla Country Club, Bollini made 22 birdies, but still shot 1-over for the tournament to tie for the 10th.

In 2002, 2-under was the sum that worked for the championship — that, plus one final long eagle putt from Bollini, Orange County's first SCGA Amateur winner since 1994 when a young man from Cypress won it on his way to his first of three U.S. Amateur titles later that summer... a kid name Tiger.

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