Ben Griffin is two years older, more than two inches taller and now a two-time state champion after posting two sub-70 rounds in his latest remarkable golfing foray around one of Pinehurst Resort’s courses.
Griffin, who caught everybody’s attention as a diminutive baby-faced 15-year-old freshmen when he won the 2011 4-A championship in a playoff on Pinehurst No. 6, lapped the field this time around in record-setting fashion on Course No. 8.
I guess it’s fitting that Griffin, now an experienced junior at East Chapel Hill High School, won his second state title on the resort’s Centennial Course on the 100th anniversary of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.
While the rest of the prep field was struggling to solve the wind and an assortment of Tom Fazio-designed undulating greens, Griffin was methodically stringing together rounds of 68 and 67 for a 4-A record score of 9-under 135. No other golfer in the field was able to break par, and there were only two other rounds in the 60s.
Griffin verbally committed to the University of North Carolina in the middle of his sophomore year, but looks like he could tee it up with the college guys right now … and compete.
“He works harder than most of the kids,” said veteran East Chapel Hill coach Bobby Neville. “We finished the regional tournament and the other guys were waiting around to see the scores and he was over there putting for an hour. That’s the difference. He works at it very hard.”
Griffin captured the Mideast Regional at Raleigh Country Club with a 69, then took his solid swing and deadly putting stroke an hour south to Pinehurst. He led by three shots after the first round, started the second round with a 2-under front nine, and then birdied five consecutive holes on the back nine to bury the rest of the field.
“My mental game is very strong. My swing is not the best, but I know my game pretty well,” Griffin said. “I’m not afraid to stick it close on a tough pin or anything like that. It’s not about getting overly aggressive, but you still need to give yourself a lot of chances.”
Griffin’s success is well earned. He gets out of school at 3:50 p.m., and then heads to Finley Golf Club to practice for two hours every day.
“I work on my feel. I like doing that,” Griffin said. “I like practicing a lot of creative shots, shots off of slopes and all types of things, to get a feel for different shots to the green. A lot of juniors are good but they like to spend their time on the range. The short game is where it is at.”
“His golf intelligence is way up there,” added Neville. “I watched him (in the second round of the state tournament) and he could have taken a chance. He had blocked himself out on a shot, and most kids would have tried to go through the trees, but he was going to make a bogey or a par and he did, he made a par. I look at other kids and they don’t do that, they would get double or triple bogey.”
After winning the 4-A title in 2011, Griffin carded an opening-round 77 last year and finished in a tie for 10th.
“When I lost last year it was motivation to win three state titles and tie the record,” he said. “I went out there this year and just tried to commit to golf shots and manage the course well and I was able to.
“This course can be tricky when the greens get quick. You can putt it off the green if you’re not careful with all the undulations. I’m really pleased that I hit the ball perfect. And I have a lot of experience and I’ve played well in the past here, so I looked at the state tournament as just another event.”
Griffin got his final round going with a 30-foot birdie putt on the fourth hole, and also made a 35-footer on the back nine to start his birdie binge.
“Being an individual in this tournament is almost like a little advantage, getting to tee off early when the wind isn’t up and the greens are perfect for your first nine holes,” he said.
Meanwhile, Trey Guy of Fayetteville Terry Sanford carded a final-round 68 to tie last year’s winner Stephen Saleeby at even-par 144, and then Guy birdied the first playoff hole to claim the second-place hardware.
Griffin is noticeably taller and stronger than his freshman season, but says he hasn’t hit the weight room yet, which could even make him a better player down the road.
“He’s growing so I’ve seen his ball height improve and he’s longer,” Neville said. “Ben would hit a green as a freshman and the ball would release forward. Now, I’m seeing those same shots and he’s pulling the ball back a little with two less club difference. And he has great vision, he just has that mind, that innate thing that most people don’t have on the golf course.”
Griffin admitted that practicing at Finley, in the shadow of the UNC campus, is a bit of a tease.
“Committing so early you just can’t wait to get there, so it’s a struggle seeing them play and competing in college tournaments and getting out of school at 12 o’clock every day,” Griffin said. “That’s going to be the fun part of things. I can’t wait, just one more year.”
And maybe one more state championship.