Four-Time Finals Placer Piot Earns Ultimate Amateur Championship

By Tom Lang
Special for

August 23, 2021

James Piot was a high school all-state Super Team member all four years he played golf at Detroit Catholic Central.

Piot – who has since moved on to play at Michigan State – was never an MHSAA Finals individual champion. But recently he achieved something much bigger, winning the ultimate individual crown for amateurs – the 121st U.S. Amateur Championship.

His championship run concluded Sunday, Aug. 15 at the iconic Oakmont Country Club with a 2 and 1 match play victory over Austin Greaser of Ohio and the University of North Carolina.

Piot led the Shamrocks to a Lower Peninsula Division 1 runner-up team finish in 2014 as a freshman, followed by three consecutive championships creating arguably the best era of high school golf for any one program in Michigan history.

According to his former assistant coach – Jimmy Dewling, now the boys golf head coach at Brighton – team titles suited Piot just fine.

“I think his team winning meant just as much to him than any individual title,” Dewling said. “Truly he’s one of those types of guys.”

Piot’s senior year in 2017, Catholic Central had three players on the all-state Super Team: Piot, Ben Smith (Georgia Tech) and Sean Niles (MHSAA individual champ), while teammates Dyllan Skinner and Sean Sooch were first team all-state.

Now on the national stage, Piot defeated Greaser of Ohio, 2-and-1, by sinking a 20-foot par putt on the 17th hole of the day’s second round in the scheduled 36-hole national final.

“It's the greatest feeling in the world,” Piot said to the national media on site. “I mean, as an amateur it's the best thing you can do. It was making that putt on 17 was just like, ‘Oh, my God. I might've done it.’”

By winning the elite amateur tournament, Piot is to receive presumably automatic exemptions into three professional majors next year: The Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open. That alone is a career-defining bucket list for anyone in golf – and he’s still a college student.

Piot was playing in the U.S. Amateur for the second straight year. In 2020 at Bandon Dunes (in Oregon), he was second in stroke play to enter the match play portion the No. 2 seed. He won his first match but then was bumped out in the round of 32.

Detroit Catholic Central golfThis year he finished his unfinished business by cruising through the match play, winning three of his six rounds with identical scores of 4-and-3. In the final, Piot was 1-up after the morning round of 18 holes. But after a lunch break and change of shirts from a dark color to a white one with a green Sparty golfer logo, there was a 4-hole swing where Piot found himself down three after 27 holes.

“I told myself on that tee box (on 10), I said, ‘I'm going to play this (last) nine 4-under.’ That's what I put in my head. Just self-belief.”

The tables turned hard at that point when Piot won four consecutive holes (10-13), and five of six, to go 2-up with three holes remaining, eventually grabbing the win 2-and-1.

Standing at that 10th tee, Piot was down three holes and TV commentator ‘Bones’ MacKay said it would be very difficult for Piot to get back into the match.

“I gave him the nickname when he was 9-years-old of ‘Spunkdog,’ because he’s got so much fight,” said Brian Cairns, his long-time teacher at Fox Hills Learning Center in Plymouth. “He’s in a corner by himself, he’ll come out every time by himself. He’s got spunk. You saw how he walked; you saw how mellow he was. You saw his shoulders go up on the back nine. He made the swings when he needed to make them.”

Dewling provided a similar but different angle on Piot.

“He took pride that he’s a public course guy and put that chip on his shoulder to beat people,” Dewling said about the high school years. “He’d watch other people practice and play and he believed he was doing things different and better than they were.

“I’ve been around high school golfers who practice because they feel like they have to. They think if they’re at the course it means they’re getting better than the next guy. But I think James would go to practice because he really wants to be there, and he really wants to know he’s preparing differently and he’s going to win more.”

Piot has always shown gratitude for the support he’s received over the years from high school buddies to his family and fans of both Catholic Central and MSU – who made up a huge section of the crowd that memorable Sunday afternoon at Oakmont.

“Mom and Dad have always been there, and I’ve been blessed to have the family and the support system I had before I even got to Michigan State,” he said. “I also had my high school coaches there (at Oakmont), Mike Anderson, Rick Williams (Detroit Catholic Central) and Jimmy Dewling, who are great mentors to me in life as well. It’s an extreme blessing to have some of the people in my life and seeing them (at Oakmont). Beyond golf, it was the coolest thing in the world.”

During his Catholic Central career, Piot was not one to dwell on “what could have been” after his MHSAA Finals individual title pursuits. He tied for sixth in Division 1 as a freshman, eighth as a sophomore, fifth as a junior and placed fourth alone as a senior in 2017.

“I think he understood the process better than anyone else – that one or two days of golf wasn’t going to define him. He’s got bigger aspirations than just one tournament," Dewling said. "He truly had an outlook and a perspective that’s so much greater than anything else. He’s so composed in high-pressure situations because he realizes his goals are still in front of him.

“James just plays with a chip on his shoulder, and I don’t think winning the U.S. Amateur is going to change that either. That’s the kind of competitive person he is.”

The people who know Piot well said he won’t change his life much in the short term at least, and will compete with the Spartans this fall and spring while finishing up his degree in finance. His Spartans have unfinished business as well, going after a Big Ten title.

“I just want to enjoy my last ride with the boys,” he said. “My school credit load might shift in the spring … but I’m looking forward to the college season and getting back out there with the Spartans. … We’re going to have a really good team and our goal this year is Big Ten champions, and hopefully we can do that.”

After receiving the U.S. Amateur trophy from the USGA officials, Piot gripped the golden hardware with a graceful respect, and turned it around a few times while looking it over. He was then asked if any past winners’ names stood out to him.

“I was just trying to see if it was real or not. I couldn't believe it. I mean, I honestly was like, did I just win the U.S. Am, in the back of my mind,” Piot answered. “I didn't really sit there and stare at all the names.”

Yet from now on and forever in history, James Piot’s name will be on that special trophy for others to search out and admire.

PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Catholic Central grad James Piot, now playing at Michigan State, keeps an eye on his shot during a 2020 Golf Association of Michigan event.  (Middle) Piot, second from right, stands with his Detroit Catholic Central team after the Shamrocks had clinched their third-straight Finals championship in 2017. (Top photo courtesy of Golf Association of Michigan; middle photo by

Kingsley Standouts Big Hits on Diamond, as Friends to 4th-Hour Classmates

By Tom Spencer
Special for

April 19, 2024

When Eli Graves or Gavyn Merchant takes a swing this spring for Kingsley, a special group of friends are not worried how they’ll connect with the ball.

Northern Lower PeninsulaThat group of friends and classmates — students in Joel Guy’s fourth-hour special education class — feel like the two senior standout athletes already hit a home run at school that day. It might even feel like a grand slam from Graves or perhaps a hole-in-one for Merchant.

And the Kingsley baseball and golf coaches feel similarly – and sentiment that may extend through the entire Kingsley community.

Merchant and Graves are playing their final baseball seasons with Stags. Merchant is dual-sporting, adding golf to his incredible athletic career.

Together, they led the Stags to Division 6 football championship in the fall despite battling through extensive injuries. Graves, the star running back, and Merchant, the outstanding quarterback, then fought through long, hard rehabilitations to get back and lead the Stags on the hardcourt and wrestling mats this winter.  

But before stepping up to the plate or the tee to compete for Kingsley on any given day this spring, the pair spend time in Guy’s class and share lunch with the Kingsley cognitively impaired (CI) students.

“You can’t say enough good things about these young men,” said Guy, who also is in his fourth year as the Kingsley golf coach. “I get teary-eyed talking about it – they just kind of took a hold of some of my students making contact at lunch and in the hallway.”

That contact began midway the football season. Graves and Merchant were joined by fellow golfer Ty Morgan and football teammate Skyler Workman.

Merchant (6) hands the ball off to Graves during the Division 6 championship win at Ford Field. A few more senior athletes have been a part of the adoption of Guy’s students intermittently as well. But Guy’s students can count on seeing Graves, Merchant, Morgan and Workman in the classroom each and every day and then at lunch. The time was made possible, Guy notes, because the athletes are ahead in their own academic pursuits or participants in the school’s Teacher Academy program.

How those seniors are contributing is rare for accomplished athletes in a high school setting, Guy is happy to point out.

“Gavin and Eli are state champions in football,” said Guy. “They are the stars of their winter sports basketball and wrestling, and you you think that being seniors with those kinds of credentials at lunch they would sit in a table with all their buddies and talk about their accomplishments.

“They sit with my special education students,” Guy continued. “They make my students feel like they’re the ‘in’ crowd, and I am so proud of them.”

Bruce Graves, father of Eli and coach of the Stags’ baseball team, recalls learning from Guy what that group of seniors was doing with their fourth hour. He wasn’t really surprised to hear from someone else what his senior leaders were doing.

“They wouldn’t tell anybody they were doing it,” the 22-year veteran coach said. “They don’t do it for a pat on the back – they just do it because they like being good guys.”

There are various reports of exactly how the athletes started getting involved with the special education students. But everyone in the school located 15 miles south of Traverse City seems happy they did.

Eli Graves, one of the Stags’ five pitchers, roams center field when he’s not on the mound. He is 1-0 as the Stags are off to a 9-0 start following a conference sweep of Kalkaska, 3-0, 15-0, on Thursday. The right-hander is slated to pitch this weekend and has hopes of the Stags finishing the year with a conference baseball title and a deep postseason run.

Graves and Merchant have raised money all year to get birthday and Christmas gifts for their classmates in Guy’s room. They’ve become particularly close to a couple of his students.

“They don’t really see us as helpers or anything like that — they see us more as friends,” said Graves, now playing his third year on the varsity baseball squad.  “We go into the special ed room, and basically just help the students with whatever work they are doing.”

Merchant putts during Thursday’s golf opener.After recovering from football injuries, Graves averaged more than 15 points per game this basketball season and earned all-conference. Merchant also recovered from postseason surgeries and got back on the mat to place fourth at 132 pounds in Division 3 and became an all-state wrestler for the fourth time.  

The pair’s in-season football injuries were not known to many. They wanted to compete for the state title and tend to the injuries later. Graves rushed for almost 2,000 yards, tying and breaking some of his brother Owen’s school records along the way. He also had 20 tackles, two interceptions and four touchdowns on defense during the 2023 campaign.

Graves sprained a shoulder joint during the Semifinal win over Reed City but a week later carried the ball 33 times and ran for 210 yards in the title game. He had four touchdowns that day in the Stags' 38-24 victory over Almont.

Merchant has had various injuries over the course of his career, undergoing wrist surgery as a sophomore for a carpal tunnel injury and having floating cartilage taken out of a knee following his junior wrestling season.

But what he endured on the way to Ford Field was the topper as he endured two torn ligaments in his knee, a fractured leg, a torn meniscus — and, later on — a pair of broken ribs sustained late in the championship game.

“When you’re in the game, it’s all about adrenaline,” said Merchant, who is facing another surgery in May but shot a 95 to lead Kingsley in its first tournament of the season Thursday at the Frostbite Open in Manton. “You don’t even think about the injury until you get off the field, and that’s when you get ice bags and fight it off.”

They have been close friends since elementary school and credit the Kingsley coaching, teaching and counseling staffs with preparing them for life after graduation.

Graves and Merchant call football their favorite sport. Graves hopes to also play football at the college level, and Merchant expects to continue on the wrestling mat.

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Eli Graves, left, and Gavyn Merchant are among standouts for Kingsley’s baseball team again this spring. (Middle) Merchant (6) hands the ball off to Graves during the Division 6 championship win at Ford Field. (Below) Merchant putts during Thursday’s golf opener. (Baseball photos by Karen Middleton.)