Teeing Off: A Team That is Subpar and Proud of It
Pinehurst teaching professional Kelly Mitchum moved to the home of American golf in the late 1980s, enrolling at Pinecrest High School before his junior year.
He recalls being, roughly, a 5-handicapper and wondering if he would be able to make the golf team.
“When I got here I was one of the few people on the team that could break 80,” the golf instructor for several members of the current Pinecrest team recalled recently. “So over the last few years, to see Pinecrest have good teams has been great because that’s what we should have in this area.”
“Good” is almost an understatement. Where some high schools develop reputations as powerhouses in more prominent sports like football or basketball, Pinecrest is carving out a niche in golf.
The school’s ascendancy in the sport is due in part to golf’s growth in the Sandhills that followed the U.S. and Women’s Opens at Pinehurst No. 2 and Pine Needles over the last two decades.
Golf is one of the county’s economic engines — more than 40 courses are here, in addition to the world-renowned resorts like Pinehurst and Pine Needles — and many families have relocated here either because of jobs in the industry or simply to soak up the atmosphere of an area that thrives on the game.
The Patriot teams have benefited from the arrival of players advanced beyond their ages when it comes to playing golf.
Pinecrest’s golf teams had enjoyed success previously. Sandy Sackmann was the coach of the Patriot girls’ state championship squad of 2001 and the boys’ title team of 2008.
Now, with Sackmann retired, first-year Patriot coach John Azzarelli, also a Pinehurst Resort professional, heads the deepest boys’ team in school history.
Just how good is this team? Through Monday’s East Regional tournament, won by Pinecrest for the sixth year in a row, brothers Josh and Zach Martin both have stroke averages under par for the season.
Josh Martin shot a 7-under 65 and the Patriots were a remarkable 18-under as a team (based on the four lowest scores) in the final conference match two weeks ago at Pinehurst No. 5.
They will be seeking another state title on Monday and Tuesday at Pinehurst No. 8.
A Deep Field
The recent surge in success has come from one home in particular. The Martin family moved to Pinehurst from Wilson when Zach, now a junior, was 11 and Josh, a freshman, was 9. Bowie and Julie Martin sought to provide their sons with the maximum opportunity to develop as golfers. Josh is currently ranked second in the class of 2015 Polo Junior Golf rankings and 43rd for all juniors.
“We’ve never looked back,” Bowie Martin says of the decision to come to Pinehurst. “It’s not just about golf. My wife and I love the area.”
Although no one is counting anymore, the combined total of tournaments the brothers have won is probably near triple digits.
“It’s a very supportive family environment,” Zach says. “I support my brother even though there is a little competition in there. I think that helps us improve each other’s games.”
Golf experience is deep on the Pinecrest team.
n Senior team captain Nick Thompson is the son of Doug Thompson, Southern Pines Golf Club director of golf.
n The father of Christian McDonald once worked at Pine Needles and is currently the general manager of the Country Club of Johnston County. His sister works for The Golf Channel in Florida.
n Senior Trey Sweeting and freshman Griffin Cryan are sons of Pinehurst Resort executives.
n Sophomore Josh Stockwell, a nephew of Country Club of Whispering Pines head golf professional and Pinecrest grad Rodney Russell, and freshman Bobby Capps have progressed in the sport as members of The First Tee of the Sandhills.
Stockwell is among those on the team who want to play college golf and make the sport a lifelong occupation. He was the Tin Whistle First Tee Junior Tour champion in 2009.
This year, he is one of the local organization’s nominees to participate in the next Champions Tour First Tee Open at Pebble Beach, following in the footsteps of former First Tee members Robert Hoadley, Lisa Chandler and Amanda D’Ostroph.
Seniors Sam Kosich and Alex Meade are returning all-conference players from a year ago and veterans of regional and state championship play. Kosich has come back strong as a senior after taking time off from golf because of a finger he dislocated last spring.
“I felt good about the way I played at states with it,” he said. “The break makes you appreciate the game more.”
Sophomore Austin Scarboro is also a beneficiary of training from The First Tee and has worked with Mitchum. Sophomore Bryan Boulanger, who once lived in Okinawa, is another of the young players Azzarelli feels can become a contributor with more experience.
Pressure to Play
There are no gimmes in the Pinecrest lineup. Ask Meade, who earned medalist honors with a 5-under-par round of 67 in the first conference match of the season held at Bayonet at Puppy Creek in March.
A week later, he shot the team’s sixth best score, a 76, at Pinehurst No. 1. The four players with the lowest scores after each match are spared having to qualify in a practice round during the week for the next one. The other squad members compete for the fifth and sixth spots.
As a result, Meade did not make the lineup for the match at Scotch Meadows, where Thompson posted a 69 and became the fourth different Patriot to win or share medalist honors in the first three weeks.
Team qualifying for the fourth match at National Golf Club was held over nine holes at No. 5.
Scarboro, who made a hole-in-one with a driver at the old Pine Horse par-3 course on U.S. 1 when he was 8 years old, was in the driver’s seat with three birdies before hitting his first drive on the par-4 ninth out of bounds during the playoff. He went on to make a double-bogey 6 that put him tied with three others for the sixth spot, requiring another playoff.
“You have to stay on the top of your game every day or you’re not going to be playing,” Scarboro said after putting out with the double. “It’s like being in a tournament — the same pressure and everything.”
Meade won the playoff to get back in the lineup and shot a 74 at National. A day after finishing second at an AJGA tournament held in Georgia, Josh Martin was the medalist with a 5-under 67 as the Patriots beat second-place Purnell Swett by 18 strokes.
“This is pretty much the first year it’s been like this,” Meade, a four-year member of the team, said of the close competition. “It’s pretty fun really. I think we’re going to shoot some low scores when we get it all figured out.”
Managing the highly competitive situation has been Azzarelli, who played golf for Jack Britt in high school and at Fayetteville State in college.
“My senior year we played regionals on Course No. 1,” the coach recalled. “I can remember pulling up to the clubhouse and being in awe walking down the hallway, seeing the huge putting area and the golf course. It was pretty amazing for a high school kid.
“Back then I never thought I’d be working here. I was lucky enough that John Hazelwood at No. 8 offered me a job straight out of college.”
Azzarelli got to know Sackmann from his days at Jack Britt when he played against Patriot star and future UNC standout Robert Reisen.
“When the Pinecrest job came open, she (Sackmann) talked to me about it and I told her if it was OK with the school I’d be willing to do it,” he said. “It was a little intimidating at first, but once I met the guys they were pretty accepting of me being the coach. We’re starting to build some relationships. It’s amazing. These guys play good golf.”
About half of the players have their own coaches, including the Martins and Sweeting with Mitchum.
“As a golf pro, I think I understand having another-teacher situations,” Azzarelli says. “So guys that have teachers, I don’t even talk to them about their golf swings. If they come to me and say I can’t see my teacher, and would you just take a look, that’s more what I do.”
Making the lineup selections is easier because of the nature of golf.
“A basketball coach gets to select his starting five,” he says. “For my starting six I rely on scores and the guys know that. When they get done, it’s not, ‘Coach why didn’t you pick me?’ They know they have to go out and produce.”
Going into the final conference match, Josh and Zach Martin, Thompson and Kosich were the team’s most consistent performers. With Monday and Tuesday’s state 4-A competition looming, Azzarelli knows he wants to put forth the best team he can.
“Right now we’ve pretty much locked in our top four,” Azzarelli said. “I’m going to base who I take for the fifth and sixth spots on the last conference match and some qualifying. It’s competitive with my sixth, seventh and eighth guys. I just want to make sure I have the best six.”
Zach Martin, the 2010 co-conference player of the year as a freshman, and Josh, who earned the honor this year, go into the championship phase of the season with years of high-level junior tournament experience behind them. Both have limited weekend tournament play this spring to concentrate on high school golf.
Thompson, the team captain, was the medalist at last year’s regional and has demonstrated he can go low. He has made five holes-in-ones in his career, including two in one round at Hyland Golf Club last June as teammates Meade and McDonald looked on.
“I’ve never played with anybody that holes out more than Nick does,” his father says.
Thompson, Meade, Zach Martin, Kosich and Stockwell were all contributors to the third-best team score on the second day of the 2011 state championship at No. 6, where the Patriots finished sixth. All five, along with Josh Martin, were all-conference selections this season.
Azzarelli has mixed exhibition matches into the schedule with potential contenders, faring well against defending champion Leesville Road and runner-up Myers Park.
“It comes down to having to tee it up,” says Mitchum, a four-time All-American at N.C. State who has mixed in PGA Tour events and other competitions with his career as a teaching pro. “I don’t care what your accolades are, you still have to get the ball in the hole.
“And you have to do it as a team. It’s not about one or two guys. The whole team has to contribute. They’ve got the depth now to be able to do that.”
After a practice round, Zach Martin was asked what he knew about the Pinecrest state title team of 2008.
Led by Jack Fields, Patrick Barrett, Russell Burke and John Gillespie, the Patriots came from nine strokes in back of Green Hope after the first day to win by six strokes over second place Charlotte Providence.
“I heard about it,” he said. “It’s a great story. Hopefully we can do the same, but not have to come back a tremendous amount like that.
“There’s a great tradition at Pinecrest with Jack Fields and Patrick Barrett going to UNC. Hopefully we can follow in similar fashion. It’s definitely something to live up to.”
Contact Charlie Bergmann at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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