NC underdogs reach US Amateur semifinals

Matthew Sharpstene, who recently joined his hometown Charlotte 49ers, and Concord’s Aman Gupta, an Oklahoma State junior, pulled off several upsets to reach the final four

Charlotte’s Matthew Sharpstene plays his tee shot at the fifth hole during the round of 32 at the 2020 U.S. Amateur at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Bandon, Oregon, last Thursday. (Steven Gibbons / USGA)

As the 394th-ranked amateur golfer in the world, it could be said that Matthew Sharpstene is a not-ready-for-primetime player.

It sure looked that way when he stepped up to the 15th tee at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon last Wednesday and noticed the Golf Channel’s television cameras staring down at him for the first time.

The Charlotte resident was leading last year’s runner-up, John Augenstein, 1-up in the opening round of match play at the U.S. Amateur at the time. But he bogeyed the hole to fall back into a tie with the Vanderbilt star.

“I feel like I was a little nervous,” said Sharpstene, who will play his first season of college golf at Charlotte this year after transferring from West Virginia. “But it was fun, just proving to a lot of people what I can do.”

Sharpstene didn’t let his nerves get the best of him. He quickly regrouped and went on to pull off the upset.

And that was only the beginning.

Using his upset of Augenstein as a springboard, Sharpstene went on an impressive run. With his father, Jeff, serving as his caddie and head cheerleader, he won three more matches to advance all the way to the tournament semifinals.

“I told my dad (during) the first match I had against John, he’s one of the best players in the world and I knew I was on TV,” Sharpstene said. “I’d never been in front of a camera before and that helped me for those final couple matches, just calming me down and knowing I could do it. It’s been an unreal experience.”

It was an experience he shared with another North Carolina native.

As much of a long shot as Sharpstene was to make it to the final four of the U.S. Amateur, Aman Gupta’s success in the tournament was even more unlikely.

A Concord native who is entering his junior season at Oklahoma State, Gupta wasn’t in the original field of 164. He only got in as an alternate after No. 2-ranked Ricky Castillo pulled out two days before the tournament began.

“Coming out here as first alternate with all the craziness going around the world right now, I thought I had a very good chance (of getting into the field),” Gupta said. “Friday afternoon when (the USGA) called me and told me I was in, that was a huge relief.”

That relaxed state of mind carried over onto the course, where he shot a course-record 64 on the opening round of stroke play on his way to a fifth-place finish. He continued his strong play over to match play, beating Van Holmgren of Florida Gulf Coast, Liberty’s Jonathan Yaun, Texas A&M’s Sam Bennett and Stanford’s Michael Thorbjornsen.

Because they were on opposite sides of the bracket, Sharpstene and Gupta were matched against others in Saturday’s semifinals. But hopes for an all-Old North State championship match were dashed when Sharpstene lost 4 and 2 to 16-year-old Charles Osborne and Gupta was beaten 1-up by eventual champion Tyler Strafaci.

Although Sharpstene suffered a bad break when he incurred a one-stroke penalty after noticing his ball move slightly as he took his backswing on the par-4 fifth hole, the match slipped away from him on the back nine when he lost four of the last six holes.

“All week I struggled on the greens,” he said. “I hit my driver all week and (against Osborne), not so much. Just everything wasn’t clicking for me.”

Things weren’t clicking early for Gupta either in his match against Strafaci. He was actually four down with six holes to go before rallying to tie the match heading to the 18th. The comeback fell short, however, when Strafaci won the final hole to close things out.

“I knew that I was going to put up a fight coming in if I just kept playing my game and, sure enough, I did,” Gupta said. “Squared up being down through 12 holes, I felt like I did everything I could. I’m just disappointed to not win.”

Sharpstene was also disappointed. But despite falling just short of the final, he said the past week has given him momentum heading into his first season at a new school.

“I’m just going to keep going,” said Sharpstene, who despite transferring to Charlotte to be closer to home because of the coronavirus, still feels strongly about his former school — as illustrated by the West Virginia golf bag he used at the U.S. Amateur.

“I still feel like I have that chip on my shoulder, so I’m just going to keep working hard and see where life takes me,” he said. “I feel like I’ve matured a lot over the years thanks to West Virginia and, hopefully, Charlotte will be the same.”