Derek Hitchner charts massive comeback, wins Trans-Mississippi Amateur in playoff

·4 min read

An informal Derek Hitchner fan club ebbed and flowed at Windsong Farm Golf Club in Independence, Minnesota, over the past four days. At one point or another, 15 or 20 of the Minneapolis native’s friends and family members streamed through the fairways to cheer on their guy at the Trans-Mississippi Amateur.

On Friday, Hitchner, who just finished his junior season at Pepperdine, translated local knowledge and all that support into a massive comeback. He trailed Derek Busby by nine shots at the start of the final round, but after two playoff holes, was left standing with the trophy.

“It’s awesome from the standpoint of knowing I can actually get the job done when the situation calls for it,” he said.

Back in February, Hitchner lost a playoff for the title at the Prestige Individual. He remembers playing in one other playoff, when he was about 8 years old, but the details are foggy.

Scores: Trans-Miss Amateur

It’s not the Trans-Miss playoff so much as how he got in it that stands as the truly remarkable part of Hitchner’s week. Opening rounds of 70-71-69 on the par-71 layout left him within striking distance for the final day. In the final round, he made an initial bogey at No. 4, but had only two birdies the rest of the day – including one on the 18th. A closing 67 was enough to force two extra trips down the 18th with Busby, who closed with a 76, his highest round of the week by six shots.

The 37-year-old Busby is a former Louisiana Tech player who competes regularly on the amateur circuit, having already finished in the top 5 at the George C. Thomas Invitational (a mid-am event) and top 20 at the Maridoe Amateur in the past two weeks.

Busby couldn’t stop making bogeys on Friday, and Hitchner surged.

“I was striking it really nicely, I guess one of the things all week was I just couldn’t really get the ball to go in on the greens,” Hitchner said. “I just figured if I kept giving myself enough chances that hopefully I can make the round.

“I didn’t even really conceive of the possibility of winning because Derek was pretty far ahead. I just kind of went on a nice run on the back nine and just hit a lot of solid iron shots and I didn’t really need my putter to do a lot of work. I kind of took care of that with my iron play.”

Hitchner’s last college event was the Western Intercollegiate, where he finished fourth individually. He played to a 71.2 scoring average in his eight starts this season, but didn’t crack the NCAA championship lineup.

Derek Hitchner, Trans-Miss Amateur
Derek Hitchner, Trans-Miss Amateur

Derek Hitchner during the Trans-Miss Amateur. (Photo by Luke Hendry, Anera Sports)

It takes three days to drive from Malibu, California, to Minneapolis, and Hitchner was burning up the road at the start of June as his Pepperdine teammates were in Scottsdale, Arizona, claiming the NCAA title.

Pepperdine head coach Michael Beard carried nine men on the roster this year and 11 last season. Inner-team qualifying is as difficult as nearly anything the Waves see on the road but up and down the lineup, it pays big dividends.

“It’s invaluable,” Hitchner said. “I’m just so grateful to be around so many good players. They have forced me to improve in so many areas.”

Last month, Hitchner’s teammate Dylan Menante won the Northeast Amateur in Rhode Island. Asked how the team group chat might respond to his own win, Hitchner said there are a few such chats.

“I’m sure I’ll talk to them all at some point,” he said.

Hitchner likely won’t be the last Wave to pick up a title this summer. Two years ago – when the amateur circuit was unaffected by COVID-19 – Pepperdine players claimed the SCGA Amateur (Sahith Theegala), NCGA Amateur (Josh McCarthy), California Amateur (William Mouw), Sahalee Players (Joe Highsmith) and the Mexican International Amateur (R.J. Manke). In August, Pepperdine qualified six players for the U.S. Amateur.

Hitchner was one of those men at Pinehurst, and he had also played the 2017 U.S. Amateur at Riviera when he was just 17.

Since returning from Malibu this spring, Hitchner has finished in the top 20 at the Sunnehanna Amateur and competed in last week’s North & South Amateur. He plans to play in a few more local and state events to finish out the off-season.

Since he’s been at Pepperdine, Hitchner said each facet of his game has improved by a little every year. At Windsong Farm, his iron game carried him through. Confidence will now carry him forward.

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