Birch preparing for U.S. Amateur

At age 19, Ridgefielder Corey Birch already has had some notable highlights in his young golf career. He was a two-time club champion at Silver Spring Country Club, as well as a leader on Ridgefield High School’s 2011 state champion team. But so far, this one outdoes them all.

Birch, a rising sophomore at the University of Connecticut, topped the field with a five-under-par 139 at the 36-hole U.S. Amateur Championship qualifier last week at the Links at Union Vale in LaGrangeville, N.Y. In doing so, he took one of the two qualifying spots for the prestigious U.S. Amateur, which will take place Aug. 12-18 at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., and at Charles River Country Club in Newton, Mass.

Birch chose the Union Vale qualifier over more convenient qualifiers at Rolling Hills Country Club (in Wilton) and Shorehaven Golf Club (in Norwalk). “I picked the Links at Union Vale because I did some research and it was the longest course, which gives me an advantage,” he said.

“Going into the qualifier, I wasn’t playing my best,” Birch said. “But having to sit out most of the spring [college golf season] with mono, and then taking a summer class, I knew this summer was going to be about preparing for the fall. I’ve been working hard on trusting my swing and being confident.”

His game proved worthy of confidence. Birch fired a three-under-par round of 69 in the morning, highlighted by three birdies in a row on the eighth, ninth, and 10th holes.

“I only knew I was near the lead,” Birch said.

He wasn’t near the lead — he was in the lead. Birch said he didn’t want to know where he stood going into the afternoon, but “another competitor’s dad congratulated me… after that, I had to refocus and recommit to my game plan for the course.”

Fortunately for him, Birch stayed hot into the afternoon, which must have been easy, considering that it was about 95 degrees.

“When I saw the forecast, I could not have been happier,” Birch said. “I’ve been doing Bikram Yoga now for two years… it has made me comfortable in the heat. It definitely gave me an advantage over the field.”

Birch’s worst nine-hole stretch came on the front nine of the afternoon round. After a birdie on the par-five second hole, he made double bogeys on the fifth and eighth holes, falling back to even par for the tournament. But he didn’t let the mistakes rattle him.

“On five and eight, I just made a couple bad swings with the driver and had two lost balls,” Birch said. “Luckily, on the last 10 holes, I had only planned on hitting my driver two more times, on drivable par fours… I was able to manage my way around the rest of the course with three-woods.”

One of those drivable par fours was the ninth hole, on which Birch rebounded with a birdie. This kicked off a truly remarkable 10-hole stretch, during which Birch added birdies on the 10th, 12th, 13th and 16th holes, for a blistering final nine of four-under-par 32. Had he played those last 10 holes in even par, he would have finished in a tie for fifth place, which would have resulted in nothing — not even an alternate spot. Instead, he was the medalist, or first qualifier, by one stroke.

“I didn’t really know I birdied five of the last 10 when I was doing it,” Birch said. “Talking with my caddie (former high school teammate and longtime friend Brady Garrett) afterwards, I don’t remember much from the back nine. I was just in the zone.

“After the qualifier, I was just really happy and pleased with how I played,” added Birch. “It took me a day or two to realize what I had accomplished, and that I will be playing in the U.S. Amateur with the best amateurs in the world.”

Birch will be among the 312-player field at the Amateur. The competitors will play two stroke-play rounds, one at each of the two courses, on Aug. 12 and 13. This will determine the 64 players that will move on to the match-play segment of the competition, all of which will take place at the Country Club at Brookline, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Francis Ouimet’s dramatic U.S. Open win at that site.

The weekend matches will be televised on NBC, and the winner of the Amateur is traditionally given entry into the following year’s U.S. Open, British Open, and Masters championship. But Birch isn’t thinking about any of that.

“I’m going to work hard and prepare the best I can during practice rounds, and then relax and have fun during the tournament,” he said.It seems like the right attitude to have leading up to what would be, for many people, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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