Austin Eckroat of Edmond, Oklahoma, shot a final-round 75 Saturday to win the 2016 Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club by one shot over Min Woo Lee of Australia. Eckroat led wire-to-wire, finishing with a three-day total of 210.
Don’t be deceived. Sunday was an epic struggle for the 17-year-old Oklahoma State verbal commitment, who edged Lee (211), John Axelsen of Sweden (third place, 213) and Davis Shore (fourth, 214) of Knoxville, Tennessee.
The leader by three and five strokes after the first two rounds, respectively, Eckroat started Saturday’s final round slowly. He knew early something was amiss. He double bogeyed the first hole, his first double square all week.
His was so off, he had more bogeys or double bogeys (three) within his initial seven holes than he had the first two rounds (2), combined.
“I really struggled off the tee,” said Eckroat. “I was hitting it left and my irons were going right. I had no idea what I was doing.”
Four consecutive pars on holes 8-11 steadied his ship, but only temporarily, as bogeys on No. 12 and 14 shaved his lead to a single shot.
He birdied the par-5 15th, getting up and down from just off the green (50 feet). “I knew I needed to make that [15-foot birdie] putt.”
At 16, Eckroat “pushed” his 4-foot bid for par.
“Then I heard the loud roar,” he said.
The roar was engineered by Lee, who snaked in “probably the best shot I’ve ever hit. It was a big 40-footer, down the hill, left-to-right, then right-to-left, a double-breaker. It just trickled in.”
Just like that, things were all square between Eckroat and Lee.
After routine pars on 17 for Eckroat and on 18 for Lee, it appeared extra holes might be in order.
Eckroat pushed his drive on 18 into the right rough. He was 235 yards out.
“I was thinking playoff,” admitted Eckroat, who pulled his 2-iron. “Whenever you have a 2-iron in hand, you are not thinking birdie.”
That mindset changed quickly when the 2-iron split the large green and rolled to within 12 feet.
“I just totally forgot everything, swung and it worked,” said Eckroat of his second shot.
That left just the putt. Uphill, slightly right-to-left.
Eckroat walked it in. Just the third birdie of the day at No. 18 provided the 2015 Oklahoma Junior Champion with the greatest win of his burgeoning career.
Moments after his charge, which included eight birdies en route to a closing 67, had ended and his hopes for a playoff were dashed, the 17-year-old Lee was content with his effort and pleased for his friend.
“I am glad Austin made the birdie on the last hole. I’m happy for him.”
Asked about the week, his win and the experience, Eckroat smiled and offered, “this place is awesome, by far my favorite golf course.”
The 54-hole Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club is widely recognized as one of the premier junior tournaments in the world. The prestigious event attracts many of the game’s top-ranked junior golfers on an annual basis.