National

Masters: Amateur scores round of a lifetime with Tiger Woods

AUGUSTA, Ga. — As life goals go, “playing alongside Tiger Woods — and beating him head-to-head — on Sunday at the Masters” is a pretty solid one. Amateur Neal Shipley has now notched that at age 23. Not a bad start to a golf career, right?

“Playing with Tiger, Sunday at the Masters, the whole week,” Shipley said after his final round. “I have to win one of these things to kind of top this week.”

Shipley, a graduate student at Ohio State, locked down the low amateur award at the 2024 Masters on Friday night, when he was the only amateur to make the cut. After struggling in the wind on Saturday — and after Woods really struggled — Shipley found himself paired alongside the GOAT for a Sunday stroll amid the pines and azaleas.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, Shipley lived in the shadow of Arnold Palmer. But it was actually none other than Vijay Singh who got Shipley into the game. None of Shipley’s family played golf, but when he and his father watched Singh win the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, the young Shipley was hooked.

“The next day I took [his father]’s golf clubs over, which were dusty and probably never used, and started swinging around,” Shipley recalled. “I decided to get me my own little set and kind of took off from there.”

He grew up playing St. Clair Country Club near Pittsburgh, where he met Carter Pitcairn, the kid who would one day become his caddie at Augusta National. Shipley is three years older than Pitcairn, and was a senior when Pitcairn was a freshman in high school, and the two spent many long afternoons driving around western Pennsylvania in Shipley’s car from match to match, filling up on McDonald’s, listening to country music, and probably never even imagining a day like Sunday was in their future.

Shipley’s talents began to blossom. He won the 2019 Western Pennsylvania Junior Championship on the third playoff hole, and won the 2022 Pennsylvania State Amateur Championship. He enrolled at JMU, earning a degree in quantitative finance in just three years while playing on the golf team. He transferred to Ohio State with two years of eligibility remaining.

His runner-up finish at the 2023 U.S. Amateur — behind Nick Dunlap, who's already turned pro — earned him an invitation to the Masters. He spent much of the next few months preparing for Augusta, taking his green-jacket-mandated five visits to the property. (Up until a few years ago, invited players could play the course as often as they wanted, but someone — the most likely suspect is Bryson DeChambeau — played so many times leading up to his debut that the National imposed a five-visit limit.)

Shipley also took some Masters advice from at least one notable fellow Ohio State alum. “I think Mike Weir's caddie asked me, coming up 18, how did you get to know the golf course so quickly?” Shipley said earlier this week. “Well, I just took some good notes … and also, talking to Jack Nicklaus doesn't hurt.”

Shipley and Pitcairn — who took time off from his sophomore year at Wisconsin to come caddie at the Masters — finished their opening round at Augusta at -1 after a delay. The second round, on a windy Friday, was much trickier, ending at +4 to stand at +3 at the halfway point to make the cut by three strokes. Round 3, frankly, was a horror show, a +8 mess that ended bogey-bogey-double bogey.

But even rounds of 80 have their high points. Shipley headed to get in some more work, and then Pitcairn approached him.

“Guess who we are going to be paired with tomorrow,” Pitcairn said.

“No way it’s Tiger,” Shipley responded.

But it was, and that turned around the pain of an 80 in a hurry. Woods can be prickly to many people, but he has a soft spot for fellow players, and spent much of his round in friendly conversation with Shipley.

“We talked a lot about just golf, Charlie [Woods] and just normal things,” Shipley said. “He's such a normal guy and really cool. He was great to me all day. Couldn't be more appreciative of him just being awesome today, and it was just really cool to be around him and just the attention he gets and the roars.”

Shipley’s round wasn’t necessarily exceptional or distinctive — four birdies against five bogeys, including one at the 18th — but he beat Woods by a solid four strokes, so there’s that.

Shipley has the body type, shaggy haircut and demeanor of an ‘80s golfer; you can see him firing off “You buy a hat like this, I bet you get a free bowl of soup” lines even though “Caddyshack” came out 20 years before he was born. He’s also got at least one more major in him; his Amateur finish qualified him for this year’s U.S. Open, too. After that, he’ll begin the long climb up the PGA Tour ladder. He’s already gotten a look at what the air’s like up top.

“I think what's going to help me out a lot is just knowing that my game can compete out here and I don't need to do anything special to make cuts,” Shipley said Sunday afternoon in a quote we can only hope won’t come back to bite him. “When I was just kind of doing my thing and not doing anything special, that was good enough to make the cut and compete out here and beat a lot of players that are on the PGA Tour.”

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