By Eddie Southards
Patrick Stephenson closed out the final round of his high school golf career with a flourish to capture the state 3-A individual championship.
The senior from South Johnston birdied three out of four holes late in the second round at the Country Club of Whispering Pines to shoot 2-under-par and win by two shots.
“I’ve always wanted to win something big in junior golf,” Stephenson said. “I’ve always had a lot of really good finishes but never really won anything very big. It’s cool to be the first golf state champion in the history of our high school. It’s definitely special. It’s something I will remember for a long time.”
Stephenson completed a Triple Crown, of sorts. He won the Two Rivers 3-A Conference title, the East Regional (with a 68) and the state championship in successive weeks.
“I won everything,” a smiling Stephenson said. “That’s about all you can do in high school golf.”
But the state tournament was in doubt on the second day. Stephenson shared the first-round lead with two other players after opening with a 71. Then he was 2 over in the second round after 11 holes.
“I knew I had to make some birdies coming in to have any chance because I knew there were some really good players still out there,” he said.
Stephenson, a lefthander, kicked his game into high gear with birdies on holes 13, 15 and 16 to shoot 71 again and finish with a 142 total. That was good enough to beat Tripp Summerlin of Rockingham County and Drew Jurs of Gastonia Forestview by two shots.
“He started out a little bit rocky and made us nervous,” said South Johnston coach Daniel Benson. “And then the back nine, he came alive and did real well.”
Stephenson was the runner-up in the state tournament last year after a final round 65. He came into this year’s event as the second-ranked junior in the state.
“He’s won all the awards that we have,” said Benson, who is in his 13th year as the golf coach at South Johnston. “Patrick is the best player by far I have had. He won the conference all four years. You don’t see kids like Patrick at South Johnston very often.”
Stephenson vowed after last year’s tournament to get stronger and he has. He packs a lot of power into his 5-foot-7, 140-pound frame, averaging 285 yards off the tee.
“I hit it pretty far for my size,” he said. “I’m hitting the driver about 10 to 15 yards longer and hitting my irons about half a club longer. My clubhead speed has increased about 7 mph.”
Stephenson was at the tournament by himself because his team failed to qualify.
Stephenson will move on to play college golf at East Carolina.
“This is really cool to win, putting a trophy in the trophy case and putting your name on a banner somewhere maybe,” he said. “It’s something everybody in the community will think really highly of and something I will remember for the rest of my life. Being a high school state champion is something not many people can say they did.”
Meanwhile, Forestview ended up winning its fifth straight 3-A title with a 601 total.
Lee County came into the state tournament with high expectations after finishing second in the Mideast Regional, led by Walter Brinker, who was medalist with a 67. But the Yellow Jackets never got on track at Whispering Pines, shooting 310-317-627 to finish seventh out of 12 teams.
“The second day of the tournament, we were trying to make a push to get to the leaders,” said Lee County coach Brad Wicker. “It was asking a lot after our opening round 310. But I’m happy with the way we played. We just go out and play golf and have fun and do the best you can.”
Brinker shot 72-75-147 to tie for seventh place in the individual standings. He got off to a rough start in the final round with four bogeys in the first six holes. But he closed it out with 12 straight pars.
“I didn’t putt like I wanted to or hit it quite as close as I needed to to make some putts,” he said. “I guess the 12 pars in a row was a plus but I’d like to have had a few birdies in there. The four bogeys in the first six holes kind of set the tone a little bit, and I never really got it back after that.”
The Yellow Jackets trailed leader East Rowan by 11 shots after the first round and knew they needed a low round the second day to get into contention.
“We knew we had to play really well and we knew that we could,” Brinker said. “But everything had to be clicking.”
“Walter played pretty solid,” Wicker said. “I wished he could have hung around that even par number a little better but 72-75 is not too bad for two days. A couple of three-putts hurt him.”
Brinker has a scholarship to play college golf at Appalachian State this fall. He was already wearing a cap with the Mountaineers logo.
“My family has a place in the area and when I got the offer it just felt right,” he said.