By David Droschak
It’s understandable that Ben Griffin relates better to Justin Bieber than Justin Rose.
North Carolina’s new 4-A individual golf champion turned 15 years old just five days before stunning a talented field at Pinehurst No. 6, a group of golfers that included Grayson Murray (who is headed to Wake Forest after next season) and N.C. State signee and Greenville Rose senior Andrew Decker, who Griffin beat on the second playoff hole by sinking his chip shot.
When arriving at Pinehurst around noon on the second day of the tournament, I immediately headed out to the eighth hole to catch up with Murray, the defending champion from Leesville Road. I got to the green in time to see the junior miss a short putt for his second straight bogey, and it became evident Murray wasn’t destined to repeat as 4-A champ.
Word then began spreading around the scoring tent that a ninth-grader from East Chapel Hill, nicknamed “The Boss” by his 68-year-old coach, was in contention.
Of course, I scoffed at such a suggestion. A 9th-grader – all of five-foot-nothin’, who has yet to shave and doesn’t own a driver’s permit – how could he possibly stand up under the pressure?
But my curiosity got the best of me and I stuck around to watch Decker and Griffin, playing in the same group, complete their second rounds instead of heading to the back nine to watch a close team competition between Leesville Road and Charlotte Myers Park.
It turned out to be a wise decision as Griffin and Decker were set for a dramatic finish.
Leading by one shot heading to the 18th tee, Griffin found the left fairway trap with his tee shot while Decker overshot the green with his approach, short-siding himself with a difficult pitch. With Griffin carding a bogey, Decker sank a clutch 20-footer to force a playoff as the two finished at 5-under-par 137.
It was the lowest 36-hole score for any 4-A player in a decade and just the second time since 1986 when the state championships were broken into classifications that consecutive sub-70 scores were carded. The other time occurred in 1996 by future PGA Tour member Carl Pettersson of Greensboro Grimsley.
Griffin and Decker now faced a wait of close to two hours as the rest of the field finished play.
The two grabbed a bite to eat, got hydrated, made several trips back and forth to the scoreboard, then headed to the range to warm up for their showdown.
There was one minor problem. The range was closed for maintenance work.
“They were mowing it,” Griffin said. “I thought, ‘Oh gosh, what am I going to do for these two hours.’ I waited until the last minute and we got about 10 balls to hit so we went out there a little stiff. But we were OK, we just played 18 holes and we’re kids. Kids are always loose.”
Especially 9th graders.
Both players carded pars on the first sudden-death hole, before returning again to the 18th tee. Each golfer had issues with their approach shots this time – Griffin yanked his attempt into the left bunker, while Decker’s ball landed in a slight indentation shy of the putting surface. After being denied relief by a high school rules official, Decker’s chip came up well short of the hole, while Griffin appeared in deeper trouble after blasting his sand shot over the green.
However, Griffin wasted little time chipping onto the green – and to everyone’s disbelief – it hopped twice and rolled into the hole, accompanied by a fist-pump from the 15-year-old. Decker missed his long putt and the title belonged to an unlikely candidate.
“I had the exact same putt off the fringe earlier, so I knew the line,” Griffin said of his winning shot. “(Decker) made a 20-footer in regulation to get into the playoff, so I figured he may make his putt, so I gave mine a good shot.”
“Of all the kids I’ve had coaching he loves a challenge more than anybody. He wants to play the best at every club,” said East Chapel Hill coach Bobby Neville, who is 53 years older than Griffin. “It’s pretty impressive, isn’t it? He’s aggressive, he’s like that. He’s not scared of 4-footers. You get one of these types of players every 10 or 20 years.”
“I went over and shook his hand. It’s phenomenal,” said Leesville Road coach Andy Hunt. “If he wants to move to Raleigh I know a school district I would like to see him in.”
Griffin actually began toying around with the game at 11 months old. His mother bought him a set of clubs at a garage sale and Griffin started chipping with his father Cowan, who played high school golf at Hickory.
“He would watch his dad and do the same moves,” said Erika Griffin. “To take this tournament as a freshman I couldn’t be more excited. I am floored. My stomach … well, you know, I feel like I could … I’m very proud.”
Griffin now has a chance to tie or break Brendon Todd’s 4-A record of three individual championships. The Green Hope golfer won his titles in 2000, 2002 and 2003. However, Griffin has other things on his mind.
“I want to get my team out here, see if my team can win the state championship,” Griffin said. “We’re going to work hard this summer and see what happens.”
Murray tied for fourth at even-par 142 after a pair of 71s.