Anatomy of a Winner
To say the back story behind the Pinecrest boys' golf team winning the state 4-A championship Tuesday at Pinehurst No. 6 is impressive is a bit of an understatement.
Not only did the Patriots overcome a nine-stroke opening-round deficit to two-time defending state champ Green Hope, but the Patriots produced a 19-stroke turnaround on day two of the championship in taking the first boys' golf title in the school's history. Then throw in the fact that Jack Fields became the school's first individual champion by turning in a blistering 4-under-par 67, one of two under par rounds on the day, and the story gets even better.
Then add to the mixture that Sandy Sackmann might have set a little history by becoming the first female coach in the state to pick up championships in both girls' and boys' golf. There was a certain symmetry to Sackmann's feat, as she coached the Patriot girls' team to a state title in 2001 before adding the boys' crown to her resume with the win Tuesday. And both championships were won at Pinehurst No. 6.
Sackmann, who was a bundle of nerves Tuesday as she waited for the final scores of the day to be posted before exhaling and acknowledging the Patriots' victory, has been coping with family issues all this year. In the fall, she missed the only match she ever has in her 10-year career as girls' coach when she attended her mother's funeral in Ohio during the girls' regional competition.
This spring, she received the startling news that her father had been rushed to the hospital in Florida because of kidney failure and other health issues.
"Both of my parents loved the game of golf and taught me to enjoy it too," Sackmann said. "Every time I play I think of them and what they taught me. If I can instill anything in my players it would be that it is a game and they can play it the rest of their lives."
Sackmann, one of the most positive coaches a person could meet, pointed out that her father had recovered, and was doing well in Florida, where at the age of 85 he is still teeing it up, several times coming in with scores below his age. When she called him Tuesday to tell him about the win, he was coming off the golf course.
And then to top off all the drama, there were four seniors on the team that had been gunning for a state championship since their freshmen year, including last year when they finished second to Green Hope by a whopping 29 strokes. That also reveals a snapshot of the team's determination to finally bring the Southern Pines school, a school located in the heart of America's golf Mecca, that missing championship.
Last year, with the same players, the Patriots trailed Green Hope by six strokes after the first round. Compare that to this year's nine-stroke deficit and the come-from-behind win becomes even more impressive. It also shows a little about the resolve of the Patriots. Sackmann couldn't have been happier for her team.
"They deserve it," she said after the conclusion of Tuesday's second round. "These kids have worked so hard for four years -- not only the four seniors, Jack Fields, John Gillespie, Russell Burke, Patrick Barrett -- but everybody on the team."
And then there was the comment from Barrett, who along with Fields will be playing golf at UNC next year, that illustrated how tough winning a championship can be, and the expectations that can be dashed. The old athletic saying about enjoying the moment because you might not get the opportunity again can be found in the words Barrett uttered Tuesday after finally capturing that exclusive championship.
"I didn't think we would pull one (state championship) in," Barrett said. "We thought we were going to win our freshmen, sophomore and junior years. We wanted to win this year, but it didn't look good (after Monday's opening round). At least we can say now that we won one."
How the Scorecard Turns
There it was on the scoreboard located at No. 6 as play began Tuesday: Green Hope 287, Providence 295, Pinecrest 296.
Monday, on a day when the wind was swirling like water going down a drain, Green Hope had four players post rounds of 73 or better, including first-round leader Michael Marshburn, who carded a 1-under 70 in the severe conditions.
Meanwhile, Pinecrest got a solid effort, but still trailed by those daunting nine strokes. Fields survived the challenge of the changing wind conditions to shoot an even-par 71. It was his putting that saved him, as he noted that the swirling winds knocked good shots off line, forcing his flat stick to the fore. He finished the day having had to putt only 26 times.
"You would look at the flag and it would be blowing one way, and then you would toss up some grass where you were and the wind would be blowing the other way," Fields said. "It was confusing. I wasn't hitting great shots, but they would be on line and the wind would move them right or left. But I got up-and-down all day to end up shooting pretty well."
His teammates also played pretty well, only not as well as Green Hope. Barrett would end with a 73, while Russell Burke would card a 75 and Sam Packard a 77. Justin Evans and Gillespie both had 78s. The top-four scores from each six-player team were used to calculate the day's total.
Tuesday there was still a slight breeze, but the conditions were much more conducive to shot-making, and it seemed a formality that Green Hope would walk away with its third consecutive state title.
The Patriots had other ideas, going about their business in workmanlike fashion. Well, that isn't quite true. The Patriots went after their business with a passion.
"We knew what we had to do to get there (win) after last year," Sackmann said. "We knew we were capable of coming in with good scores, but I thought we would have to go under par as a team to have a chance to catch Green Hope."
The Patriots wouldn't have to under par, as their second-day total of 290 proves, thanks to a disastrous performance by Green Hope. Green Hope ballooned from its opening-round 287 to a second-day total of 309.
"We just played our worse round of golf at the wrong time," said Green Hope coach David Allen. "The guys didn't quit. We were consistent for the whole tournament. We never recorded a score over 79."
Pinecrest didn't quit either, even when things weren't going well for several individual players. Take Barrett for example. After 14 holes he was 9-over and struggling to hit greens. He had missed six greens in a row when he finally hit "my first good shot" on the par-5 sixth hole (his 15th of the day). Even then it was a close call that got him rolling on a four-hole birdie binge.
"It was a tough pin placement," Barrett said. "It (his approach) just about spun off the green and into the water, but it stopped about 5 feet from the hole."
Barrett would make that putt, then proceed to make birdie putts of 20, 15 and 4 feet on his final three holes as a high school golfer, turning that 9-over score into a decent 75 for a two-day total of 148.
Then there was soft-spoken senior Gillespie. After opening with his 78, he was in the final Pinecrest grouping of the day, a group that included Green Hope's Marshburn. He strolled along the ground in a confident manner, coming into his 18th hole (the ninth) riding a round of 3-over. His approach shot on 18 found the bunker in front of the green, plugging like a fried egg. He said that he just swung as hard as he could trying to get the ball out and on the green in decent position. According to Gillespie, he was trying to do more than just find get out.
"I was trying to make it," he said of the bunker shot. And he almost did, leaving himself about a 5-footer for par. He rolled it in, and was greeted by a jubilant crowd of Pinecrest players, fans and Sackmann as he walked off the green with his 74. The 74 tied the lowest round of his high school career, and it came under the toughest of conditions: playing in a state championship.
"For John to come in with a 74 on No. 6 in this kind of situation," Sackmann said, "was unbelievable."
In a poignant sign of Sackmann's love of the game, and of her players, she grabbed Gillespie after his score was posted and said, simply, "Thank you."
Burke continued to be a steady figure for the Patriots, improving on his opening round 75 by one stroke, posting the same 74 total that Gillespie did.
Patriot underclassmen Evans and Packard struggled Tuesday, finishing in the 80s, but the four Patriot seniors had come through on the day it mattered most with their four scores used to post a 290 that, combined with the first-round 296 had the Patriots as the clubhouse leader with a 586 total. Green Hope, paired with Pinecrest during the tournament, was out of contention, having finished with a 596 total.
But the Patriots weren't assured of the championship after they had finished play. There was the little problem of what Providence was doing out on No. 6. In the format used in the tournament, Green Hope and the Patriots went off in the early groups, while Providence, who led the Patriots by one stroke coming into the final round, was in the later groupings.
Finally, at around 3 p.m., the final Providence score was posted, revealing the Charlotte area school had come in with a 297, good enough for second place with a two-day total of 592.
The Patriot players and supporters not only breathed a sign of relief, they, at last, could celebrate that championship that the school had been seeking for so long.
Portrait of a Medalist
You want to know how tough winning an individual championship can be? Or maybe just be given an example of how the golf gods can be downright cruel sometimes? Then Nik Peterson of Providence is your man.
Peterson, for the third year in a row, was in contention to capture the individual title. He shot an even-par 71-71 -- 142 total in finishing second to Fields' 71-67 -- 138 3-under par performance. The two years before, Peterson missed out on finishing second, losing in playoffs both times. And both times the player that won used a birdie to top a par from Peterson.
The golf gods can also have a bit of a sense of humor, as witnessed by Fields' escapades on No. 6's 15th hole. He took a roundabout way in shooting an even-par 10 on the par-5 hole over the course of the tournament. On Monday, the hole bit the UNC-bound senior, handing him a double-bogey 7. But Tuesday, Fields bit the hole, using two giant shots to hit the green in two, and then rolling in his putt from 7 feet for an eagle 3.
Fields wanted the championship, and knew he would have to go low to get medalist honors. He also knew he would have to go low to help his teammates along to a championship also.
"I knew I would have to shoot under 70," Fields said Tuesday, "but I wanted to shoot under (par) because I wanted to help my team win. It turned out to be a great day."
Fields, who chipped in for one of his five birdies on the day, almost came a cropper on his 17th hole (the eighth) Tuesday. The bogey he made there might have been his most important score of the day. After ripping a drive around the dogleg, he faced about 80 yards to the green that had the pin location on the back. But his approach shot fell far short, landing in a bunker on the front. His blast from the bunker sailed off the back of the green, his chip coming back ran past the flag, and he faced a tough 4-foot downhill slider to save bogey.
"It was 80 yards to the hole, and downwind," Fields said of the near-catastrophe on the hole. "I tried to get a little cute with it, but I didn't commit to the shot. It could have been a whole lot worse, but I found a way to make bogey. I knew I was still 3-under, and after making that putt I felt confident going into the ninth hole (his 18th for the day)."
That confidence translated into a final hole birdie, getting the senior back to 4-under, and assuring him of medalist honors. And about those golf gods? Their mischievous ways weren't done yet, as Fields pointed out.
"He (Kevin O'Connell of Green Hope) won last year and his team won at Southport (where the tournament was played)," Fields said. "This year I won it, and my team won the championship. That's pretty wild."
The connection gets even better, as least for fans of Tar Heel golf.
Green Hope coach Allen, when talking about Fields play, said, "He really came through, that little rascal. It looks like Inman has just gotten his second state champion. I might have to start rooting for the Tar Heels."
John Inman is the coach of UNC's golf team, and signed O'Connell to a scholarship last year. This year he inked Fields to a scholarship, along with Barrett. Fields has had an impressive junior career, a career that earned him the ride to UNC, where he and Barrett will be joining former teammate Robert Reisen. Fields' performance on the junior circuit, which includes three wins on the ultra-competitive AJGA tour and two trips to the U.S. Junior Amateur, has earned him a top-50 ranking among the nation's junior golfer list compiled by the well respected Golfweek magazine.
But the state championship might be the most special victory for Fields.
"You know, I was just telling one of my teammates," Fields said after being sure he was the tournament's champion, "that the one thing missing in my junior career was a state championship. Now, I've got that and it feels good."
What It Takes
So the drought the Patriots have endured ever since the school opened its doors more than 35 years ago ended Tuesday. Pinecrest had a state championship boys' golf team, and the Patriots also boasted the best 4-A player in the state.
"We got the medalist," the happy, but still shaking with nerves, Sackmann said Tuesday. "And we got the team championship. The kids deserve it. They have been working so hard. There are so many people I would like to thank, so many people that have made this possible.
"We told Green Hope we would be back after last year. We told them we would get them next year."
Get them they did, and under the greatest of pressure, although if you watched the Patriots perform Tuesday they didn't appear to be feeling that pressure. Most of the players didn't make the round a good walk wasted, but turned it into a grinning, relaxed attack on a goal that has hung out there for so long.
Riverside coach Ben Huffman, who saw his golfer, Jack Garrett, fall from contention for medalist honors after opening with a first-round 71 that was followed by a 78 on Tuesday, might have put it best when it comes to identifying the best in the state.
"This is the way a state championship should be," he said when talking about No. 6. "If you hit a bad shot, you pay for it. You can't get lucky. In a one-day tournament you might get lucky, catch lightening in a bottle. This tournament is two days, and you have to play two solid rounds of golf. You earn what you get."
Reached by phone Tuesday night, Sackmann sounded a bit reserved about the day's events. All the nerves she battled during the day appeared to have melted away.
"You know," she said, "you wait for something so long, and you watch your kids work so hard, then it finally happens. The feeling is unbelievable. Right now, though, I guess it's just time to relax. It's been such an emotional day that I really am sitting here now just sort of spent. I guess it is sinking in, and I'm just sitting here winding down. My husband and I are just going to have a quiet evening at home.
"I'll tell you something else. When you are a coach, you never get to see one player play all 18 holes. You are always running around, watching one player playing a few holes, and then racing off to catch another player for a few holes. It would be great if you could just watch one player all 18 holes, but I coach a team, not just one golfer."
And that team, coach Sackmann, just delivered.
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