Eric Bae’s golfing life has been somewhat complicated up to this point. Born in South Korea, he came to the United States as a 6-year-old, was later adopted by his uncle — a former PGA Tour caddie for Mr. 59 Al Geiberger — and then groomed to actively compete on the junior circuit.
Now 16, and the third-ranked junior golfer in North Carolina, the diminutive Bae added another interesting chapter to his golfing career when he moved from Raleigh to the Sandhills last July and enrolled at prep powerhouse Pinecrest High School.
The Patriots, with senior star Josh Martin already in the fold, were one of the favorites to win the 4-A state championship, which they also captured in 2013.
However, Bae’s main goal at Pinecrest wasn’t very complicated at all.
“I just wanted to fit in,” he said sheepishly.
The junior did more than “fit in” at the 4-A state championships in mid May at Pinehurst Resort, shooting a pair of 70s on courses No. 2 and No. 4 for a 4-under 140 total to join his older sister Sarah as an individual state champion. Sarah won her 4-A title in 2012 while at Athens Drive. She and Eric are the first brother-sister duo to capture North Carolina prep golf titles.
When asked what he felt Eric Bae would add to his team when informed he would transfer from Raleigh, Pinecrest coach Rich Wainwright didn’t hesitate, saying: “This.”
“This” referred to the program’s third state championship since 2008.
“Eric is just a terrific competitor, a phenomenal competitor,” Wainwright said. “His stroke average was lower in the invitational tournaments than in conference play, which tells me he gears up for the top events and this was no exception. He is just tough.”
And while Bae was a model of consistency for two rounds, it was Martin, the 2014 North Carolina Amateur champion, who sealed the deal for the Patriots, holding off runner-up and defending state champion Raleigh Broughton and Charlotte Myers Park.
Martin, who will join older brother Zach and play collegiate golf at the University of North Carolina this fall, had an uncharacteristic 78 in his opening round, but rebounded by firing the low round of the event, carding a 5-under 67 in the final group as Pinecrest won by six shots after trailing by two following the first 18 holes.
“He’s the best player in the state and he showed it,” Wainwright said.
“What was really neat was the top three teams this year were Myers Park, Broughton and us, and for all of us to be within four shots of each other going into the final round was cool,” Wainwright added. “You had the best three teams going head-to-head.”
“It is cool to finish out like my brother did,” Martin said of the team championship.
Meanwhile, Broughton was in the hunt again until the end, when the team combined to shoot 5-over on the 18th hole, ending any outside shot of repeating.
“Good front nine, not so good back nine,” Broughton coach Anderson Marlowe said when assessing his team’s performance. “I don’t know if we ran out of gas or what. But hey, Pinecrest just played well. They have a fantastic team. Just look at their scores. They are the best team in the state, they deserve it.”
In addition to Bae and Martin (who finished 5th) freshman A.J. Beechler shot 76-71 to tie for 6th.
Doc Redman of Leesville Road shot 72-70 to finish two shots behind Bae as individual runner-up, while Bryce Hendrix of D.H. Conley carded rounds of 73-70 for a 143 to take third after a playoff with Broughton’s Stephen Saleeby (73-70).
Back to Bae, who has verbally committed to play his college golf at Wake Forest. He also shot a 70 in regional play to finish second to Martin’s 69 there and gained some additional momentum heading to the state tournament.
But his sharp play down the stretch was no accident.
“Last year I kind of goofed off a little bit, but then I realized I was falling behind other golfers,” Bae said. “For the last couple of months I’ve been working 5-6 hours a day after school on my game.
“The way I look at it I really haven’t had that much success as a junior golfer compared to somebody like Josh,” he added. “Last year, I started turning it around some and making it to the round of 32 at the U.S. Juniors. Sure, this feels great, and I am going to enjoy it, but you can’t get too into it.”
Up next for Bae is an attempt to qualify for the U.S. Amateur at Mid Pines Resort.
Meanwhile, Broughton’s Saleeby, headed to play college golf in the fall at North Carolina-Wilmington, shot a final-round 70 to garner his record-setting fourth straight top four finish in the state championship. The senior won the 2012 individual champion as a freshman, finished second in 2013 and has been fourth the last two years.
“I have said in the past that Stephen is a warrior; he never ever gives up,” said Marlowe. “You combine that with talent and that is why he does what he does. He brings it every day in practice as well. He is also a great person, likes to have fun and his teammates love him. Few kids have the smarts, the talent and the perseverance to bring it to the course every day, but he does.
“From a coaching standpoint, it is so nice to have a player that you know when he tees it up he will give you everything that he possibly can,” Marlowe added. “It is no surprise to me that he has finished top 4 every year at the state championships. He could have won it more than once with a little luck, but someone always gets hot though. The winner is always off of an A-list of players.
UNC-W is getting quite a player.”