The 2021 WPGA Match Play Championship came to a close on Friday afternoon. After about three months of play it was time to crown a champion. The event kicked off back in early May with the qualifying round and three rounds of matches over two days at Geneva National Resort. The surviving eight players would then branch out on their own and play their quarterfinal match at a mutually agreed upon time and site. In late June the final four was set, and per the event rules the final two rounds would be played on one day before August 9. Jim Schuman, Kurt Mantyla, Austin Gaugert and Joe Leonard would pick July 30 for their date and the section office would pick The Legend at Merrill Hills for the host site.
The first semifinal of the morning would feature Mantyla and Gaugert, while the second match would pit Schuman against Leonard. In match one the solid play of Gaugert would overcome an impressive short game display by Mantyla, as the Lake Geneva native was victorious 2&1. In match two it would be Leonard rekindling some of his Merrill Hills 2018 Section Championship magic with an extra hole victory over Schuman. After hitting the par-5 second in two he would make birdie and win on the twentieth hole.
Shortly after concluding the morning round it was time for Gaugert and Leonard to see who would claim their first Match Play title in a WPGA sanctioned event.
Off the bat it would be Leonard jumping out to a good start. The Madison native would roll in a 10-foot birdie putt on no. 1 to grab the lead. Shortly thereafter he’d calmly two-putt on no. 3, while Gaugert would miss the green and make bogey. The 2up lead for Leonard would be short lived though. Gaugert would battle back by getting up and down from short of the green for birdie on no. 4. Leonard’s chance to match would roll by the edge of the cup.
The next movement of the match would come on the no. 7 and 8. Both par 4s saw Leonard find the fairway and Gaugert would be blocked out by the right-hand trees. The ideal positioning would unfortunately not pay off for The Oaks GC director of instruction. On both holes the difference turned out to be the short game, as Gaugert hit a great greenside sand shot on no. 7 and made a nice four-foot par putt on no. 8. In each case par won the hole as Leonard missed five-foot par putts to halve the hole.
“The bunker shot was great,” Gaugert said. “I was trying to hit a chunk and run and it actually came out high and soft.”
With momentum on his side Gaugert would almost throw it away on no. 9. After pulling his tee ball left of the green he would hit a high flop shot to about twenty feet, and then roll in a clutch par putt to stay 1up at the turn.
Leonard would not be deterred as battled back on the very next hole. After a nice iron shot to ten feet he was able to sink the birdie and even up the match.
After matching pars on no. 11 and 12, a misstep by Leonard would open the door for Gaugert on no. 13. Playing from the fairway Leonard would overcook his third shot and miss the green long and left. The difficult position would leave him with bogey and after another nice lengthy lag putt by Gaugert he’d have his par and another 1up advantage.
“I really lag putted well all day,” Gaugert said “I was 40, 50, 60 feet several times today and I don’t think I three-putted.”
The advantage would stick over the course of the next four holes as each player would narrowly miss birdie chances, which resulted in matching pars.
As they headed to no. 18 Gaugert would look to close out the match, he’d strike a solid drive in the fairway and Leonard would push his right into the trees. Gaugert solidly knocked his second shot to ten feet and after an unsuccessful birdie chip by Leonard the match had been determined. A birdie concession delivered Gaugert the 2up win.
It was quite the day for the former Valparaiso University golfer, as it was the biggest victory of his golf career.
“I think I’ve won a few pro-ams but this is huge,” Gaugert said. “I’ve always loved Match Play, it’s fierce and competitive.”
For Gaugert he’ll have to put the sticks away for a few weeks as he’ll be back caddying on the PGA Tour next week at the Barracuda Championship. With the win he pockets a five-year exemption into the Wisconsin State Open and also takes home the $3,450 first place prize check.
The WPGA like to thank Bushnell Golf and the PGA Tour for their great support of the event. The contributions were a key part of putting on a terrific event.
A great deal of appreciation also go out to Geneva National Resort and The Legend at Merrill Hills for hosting portions of this year’s event. Both host sites were excited and more than willing to do what was needed to make sure the players had a great playing field for their matches.