Cory Brown of Davidson, N.C. escaped this dilemma (at No. 18) and a difficult setup Thursday at Bethesda Country Club to win an AJGA event for the first time. / Photo by Kevin Dunleavy
In the inaugural Under Armour / Steve Marino Championship, the stars were aligned for Keegan Boone. He was in the lead at his home course in his last junior tournament.
But nothing in the final round of the American Junior Golf Association event went according to script. Boone shot himself out of contention early and somehow Clay Brown of Davidson, N.C. managed to win despite playing the final three holes in five-over-par.
As the leaders finished up Thursday at Bethesda Country Club, no one in the gallery was quite sure where anyone stood, such was the scramble underway. But Brown (70-73-74 – 217), after building a big lead by playing the first 15 holes in 1-under-par and watching his playing partners falter, had enough cushion to survive his nervous finish and win his first AJGA event.
“I’ve been so close a couple of times,” Brown said. “It feels good to get it done, just a huge relief.”
Also relieved was girls winner Bryana Nguyen of Columbia (67-77-72 – 216), who defeated her nemesis, Elyse Smidinger of Crofton (72-72-73 – 217) by a stroke to capture her first AJGA title.
The victory came after losing the last two years to the Denver-bound Smidinger in the Maryland public schools championship.
“I always wanted that head cover they give out,” Nguyen, a junior at Atholton, said of the gold-colored putter cover awarded to AJGA winners.
Nguyen’s victory came via clutch birdie putts at No. 15 and No. 16. Meanwhile in the boys division, there was plenty of bloodshed on the back nine.
Brown, a rising high school senior who is bound for East Carolina, took an unplayable lie on No. 16 after pulling his drive into trees, and made a triple-bogey. Then on No. 18, Brown air-mailed his 8-iron from 160 yards out into knee-high thickets and hacked his next shot a few feet into a bunker on his way to a double-bogey.
“I probably should have taken an unplayable there,” Brown said. “I could have made that six a little easier on myself, but I made it exciting I guess.”
After Brown’s finish, several players rued an opportunity lost. Fifteen-year-old runner-up Ryan Domes (72-70-76 – 218) of Lancaster, Pa. made five bogeys on the back nine, including one on the 18th hole, where he missed the green and failed to get up and down from a bunker.
Third-place Dominick Vennari of Stuart, Fla. (75-69-75 – 219) shot 39 on the final nine holes, bogeying the 18th after pushing his drive into trees. Among those who had a chance in the final round were Jake Leavitt of Woodstock (73-72-76 – 221), Nathan Halowell of Montgomery Village (73-73-76 – 222), and Boone of Bethesda (70-72-78 – 220).
“I just hit it horrible today,” said Boone, a recent graduate of Gonzaga who will play at Loyola this fall. “A 75 would have got me in a playoff. It’s been a while since I shot anything over a 74 or 73 here. Just one of those days. It happens.”
With pins tucked in difficult locations, traditional, tight, tree-lined Bethesda, former site of the LPGA Championship, took a bite out of some of the nation’s best juniors on Thursday. It even riddled member Boone, winner this spring of the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference and Metro Private Schools championships. Even the champion owned up to lessons learned.
“I built a four-shot lead. I think that almost made me more nervous,” Brown said. “I played a little too cautious. I think next time I get in this position, I should maybe just play all the way to the end and stay aggressive, not try to lollygag it around there.”