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Newcomer Wright advances to Rowan Masters semifinals

By David Shaw
sports@salisburypost.com

CHINA GROVE — Who the heck is Kyle Wright? Glad you asked.

He’s the steady-as-she-goes 34-year old from Salisbury who turned his first appearance in the Rowan Masters Championship into a spotlight performance Saturday at the Warrior Golf Club. Wright needed 21 dehydrating holes to dethrone defending champ Keith Dorsett and claim a berth in this morning’s semifinal round.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” ninth-seeded Wright said, moments after his four-foot putt for par on the third extra hole gave him a 1-up quarterfinal win. “Keith’s a great player, the top seed and one of the best golfers around. But against him, you can’t get outside the box. It’s still one swing, one shot at a time.”

Wright will face-off against 37-year old Brandon Phillips, a 2 & 1 quarterfinal-round winner against Shane Benfield. The other semi pits former East Rowan High School teammates Nick Lyerly against rising senior Austin Miller. The winners meet for the title at approximately 1 p.m. today.

“It’s just one of those things,” said Dorsett, an eight-time Masters champion. “It’s all about who’s on and who’s off that day. (Wright) played a solid match. He didn’t make many mistakes, and I was fighting a two-way mess all day. It’s hard to play golf when you’re hitting it both ways and don’t know where it’s going.”

Wright, a Warrior club member, could have ended the match early but wilted in the 90-degree heat. “I had him 3-up after five,” he explained. “Then I had three bad holes and let him back into the match.”

Dorsett squared the match at No. 16 with a par-3. “Then it was just survive and advance,” he said.

Only Wright did, prevailing when Dorsett’s tee shot on the 186-yard No. 3 hole sailed off to the left and beyond the spectator sidewalk. He then pitched a shot from the dirt that rolled some 15 feet beyond the pin. “The story of my day,” he shrugged afterward.

Wright, meanwhile, played the final hole down the middle and won it with a well-measured, well-struck putt. “It wasn’t stellar golf by any means,” he said. “But my short game saved me all day.”

• • •

Phillips, a construction worker who routinely puts in 60-hour weeks, played 19 holes in yesterday morning’s second round and 17 more to oust Benfield. The No. 5 seed, he built a four-hole lead after 13, but needed to sink a birdie putt on the 17th hole to prevail.

“I went up four, then lost the next three,” he said. “It was a big relief when it ended. My focus was to make pars and let the birdies come.”

Phillips last played in the tournament in 2014, when he lost in the semifinals. He made headlines in last weekend’s qualifying round by using a pitching wedge to make a hole-in-one on the par-3, 175-yard sixth hole. He’s never faced Wright, but has a still-under-wraps strategy to win.

“If I play well, I’ll have a chance,” he said. “Winning here is easier said than done. It’s a lot of hard work. You really have to think your way around this course.”

• • •

No. 2 seed Lyerly — one of six East Rowan products in the quarterfinals — advanced by injury default when 10th-seed Patrick Gregg withdrew after six holes. In a 2 & 1 second-round victory against Owen Swavely, he shot a 5-under 30 on the front nine, built a three-hole lead and birdied the par-5 17th hole to move on. Gregg was two holes down in the quarters when a sore neck and back caused him to withdraw.

“He said his neck was bothering him for a couple of holes,” Lyerly reported. “He just couldn’t deal with it anymore. Obviously, it’s not the way any competitor wants to win. You never want to see anybody injured.”

Lyerly remains the on-paper favorite to hoist the championship trophy today. A rising junior at UNC-Greensboro and well-decorated legend-in-the-making, he’s already missed the cut in two tournaments this summer — the Sunnehanna Amateur in Pennsylvania and the North-South Amateur at Pinehurst.

“I haven’t done much lately,” said Lyerly, the 20-year old who plays with Clemente’s eagle-like pride. “But I’m here, in the semifinals. You take it any way you can get it.”

• • •

Then there’s Miller, the apple-cheeked 17-year old who won the NPC individual tournament with a par-71 at the Warrior last month. Seeded 14th, he made five birdies and a 25-foot putt on No. 17 to surprise established golfer Andrew Morgan, 3 & 1, in the morning round. Morgan was the tournament’s third-seeded entry. After lunch, Miller returned to edge sixth-seeded Ritchie Fesperman, 3 & 2.

“(Fesperman) is another East Rowan grad,” Miller said. “But he’s like 30-something. I saw him make some putts in the morning. His ball-striking was pretty good. But as the round went on, I saw signs of fatigue. He hit an O/B on 10, and at that point I was only one up. The last five holes I kept telling myself to keep hitting the middle of the fairways and the middle of the greens.”

Miller’s finishing kick included wins at Nos. 10, 11, 13 and 14, culminating with a birdie on 14.

“I hit a gap wedge from 131 yards to within three feet of the hole,” he said. “That was a great way to finish.”

NOTES: The Masters wasn’t held last summer, due to course renovations. About 2,000 trees were removed and the greens were resurfaced. Most participants approved of the changes, which make the spread more challenging.

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