HARTFORD, Conn. – When Jack Heath was 2 years old, his mother, Kelley, wanted to get him out of the house so she sent him off to the golf course with his dad, Ron.
“I encouraged him to go driving range because golf is all he wanted to do,” Kelley said Friday after watching her oldest son dramatically win the Boys Junior PGA Championship at Keney Park Golf Course. “He loved watching golf, not cartoons, and Phil Mickelson was his favorite player because he was a lefty, too.”
“I loved it,” recalled a smiling Jack, who now likes Xander Schauffele because he has a similar low-key attitude.”
Mickelson and Schauffele would have been proud of how Heath finished in one of junior golf’s major championships, sinking a 38-foot birdie putt from the back fringe on the 18th hole to shoot a career-best, 8-under-par 62 and beat close friend Canon Claycomb by a stroke.
Heath’s 62 bettered the fourth-round tournament record 63 shot by Chris Couch when he won in 1990. Heath’s 72-hole total of 21-under 259 shattered the tournament-record 266 by two-time champion Akshay Bhatia in 2017, though Bhatia was 22 under because he played on a par-72 course. In fact, 21 players bettered the previous four-round record as the 76 of the 144-player field who made the cut blitzed the shortish, well-conditioned Keney Park layout, which underwent a $5 million facelift three years ago.
Heath said he got special satisfaction from his final stroke, which enabled him to beat his previous low score by a shot.
“When I was standing over the putt, I thought, ‘This is why I play golf,’ ‘’ the 6-foot-5 Heath said. “I’m out here to win, not come in second. I knew if it went in, I would most likely win, unless Canon did something crazy.”
Claycomb, who has known Heath since they were 8 years old, and Georgia Tech commit Andy Mao each had a chance to force a playoff while playing in the final group behind Heath. But Mao narrowly missed a 30-foot birdie putt and then a 4-foot comebacker to shoot 66 and finish third at 261. Claycomb came even closer to birdie on a 20-foot putt, biting his putter shaft as the ball slid by the cup, settling for 66 and second place at 260.
“I hit a really good putt that looked really good,” said Mao, 17, of Jones Creek, Ga., who got into contention when he birdied four of the first five holes on the back nine. “It was all I could ask for, but it just didn’t go in.”
Heath fidgeted, pulled his hat over his eyes, ruffled his hair and had fellow competitors rub his shoulders as he watched the two close calls fail to drop and then broke into a wide smile and accepted plenty of congratulations, including from Mao and Claycomb as they exited the green and longtime Connecticut resident Suzy Whaley, the first female president of the PGA of America who presented the winner with the Jack Nicklaus Trophy.
“I was very aware of where I stood all day, and when I three-putted the 10th hole from eight feet, I figured it was pretty much over,” said Heath, 17, a San Diego State commit who will be a senior at Charlotte Catholic High School, a two-time defending state champion in North Carolina. “After that, it was all gas, no brakes. Then once I made one putt, I just started believing I could make anything and they went in. I knew I had to go out and make birdies, so I wanted to be aggressive and finally started to make everything.”
Heath knew it might be his day when he holed a 45-yard wedge shot for eagle 3 at the second hole. After a bogey at No. 7, he made birdie putts of 12 inches and 15 feet on the eighth and ninth holes to turn in 3-under 32. Then after the bogey 6 at No. 10, Heath looked like Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ben Crenshaw all rolled into one as he had only 24 strokes in final eight holes.
After a par 3 at No. 11, he chipped to 5 feet for birdie at the 12th. After another par 3 at No. 13, he hit a 7-iron to 20 feet and made the putt for his second eagle 3 of the day at 14th hole. He canned a 25-footer for birdie at the difficult 15th hole and then capped his record-setting day with birdie putts of 12 and 38 feet on the final two holes for an incoming 30.
Heath joined a list of past champions that includes former major championship winners David Toms and Trevor Immelman and fellow PGA Tour players Couch, Pat Perez, Sean O’Hair, D.A. Points. Claycomb joined a runner-up list that include major championship winner Woods, 2017 Travelers Championship winner Jordan Spieth and Justin Leonard and fellow PGA Tour players Tony Finau and Boyd Summerhays.
“This means the world to me,” said Heath, who headed for a vacation in Maine with his mother before resuming competition. “I worked hard over the past year-and-a-half, and it’s paid off. It’s a great feeling.”
Claycomb, a member of the 2018 United States Junior Ryder Cup Team, was philosophical about finishing second to Heath in a major event. A similar result occurred in the 2016 U.S. Kids Golf Teen World Championship at Pinehurst (N.C.) Country Club when Heath took home his division’s title at age 14 by one stroke over Claycomb.
“I shot 20-under for four days,” said Claycomb, who led after the first two rounds. “I’m really happy with how I played.”
Claycomb, who began the day two back of Jake Beber-Frankel, vaulted into a share of the lead when he birdied four of the first five holes off putts of 20, 2, 20 and 12 feet. He fell off the pace with bogeys at Nos. 8 and 9 to turn in 33, then offset two bogeys with four birdies on the back nine but missed from 8 and 20 feet for birdie on the last two holes.
“I scrambled well all week, did a really good job of recovering,” said Claycomb, 17, a University of Alabama commit from Bowling Green, Ky. “I wanted to get off to a good start and try to distance myself for third place, but Jack obviously didn’t let that happen. But I’m happy to be friends with Jack and super happy for him.”
Claycomb was the pre-tournament favorite after being a Rolex Junior All-American who helped lead the United States to victory over Europe in the 2018 Junior Ryder Cup at Disneyland Paris. He tied for third in last year’s Boys Junior PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky, finishing three shots behind Bhatia, winner the last two years and the only two-time titlist who turned pro this week.
Brett Roberts, 17, of Coral Springs, Fla., spiced a 64 with an eagle 2 at No. 7 and finished fourth with 64 for 262, one ahead of Beber-Frankel, a Stanford commit who was 18 under for 54 holes but closed with 71, falling out of contention with bogeys at the 14th, 15th and 16th holes.
“I hit it as good as any other day, but I putted so bad,” said Beber-Frankel, 17, the son of Academy Award and Emmy Award winning director David Frankel and the grandson of Max Frankel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times coverage of President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1973. “On the front nine, I thought I hit a lot of good putts, but on the back nine, I was just terrible. But it was nice to finish the way I did (a 12-foot birdie putt). I finished in the 20s in my first two appearances, but now I know how to score a little better.”
Claycomb and Timothy Magcalayo, 16, of The Philippines started the record scoring spree with first-round 62s, which broke the opening-round tournament record of 64, set by Dawson Ovard in 2017. They also shared the Keney Park competitive course record shot by Clark Robinson in a Connecticut Open qualifier and tied by Adam Rinaud in the 2018 Connecticut PGA Championship and Megha Ganne in the Girls Junior PGA Championship three weeks earlier. Claycomb and Magcalayo also were one off Bhatia’s all-time tournament record 61, also set in 2017.
Beber-Frankel quickly bettered those records in the second round when he birdied five of his first six holes on his way to an all-time championship record 60, which put him at 13-under 127 and only a shot behind leader Claycomb, who had 14 birdies and one bogey in the first 36 holes. Beber-Frankel missed a 15-foot birdie putt on his final hole, No. 9, to shoot 59.
“I actually thought of a 59 on my 10th or 11th hole,” Beber-Frankel said.
Despite falling short of that goal, Beber-Frankel broke Bhatia’s tournament record 61, set at the Country Club of St. Albans near St. Louis in 2017, though Bhatia still holds the record in relation to par. He was 11-under on a par-72 course, while Beber-Frankel was 10-under on the par-70 Keney Park course. Beber-Frankel also now holds the lowest second-round championship score and broke the Keney Park course record by two strokes.
Then while Claycomb shot 3-over 38 on the front nine of the third round before a 5-under 30 on the back side salvaged a 68 for 194, Beber-Frankel continued his onslaught with seven birdies in a 65 for a two-stroke lead entering the final 18 holes. His 192 total shattered Bhatia’s 199 scoring record in 2017 by seven strokes. And in a relation-to-par comparison, Beber-Frankel also topped Bhatia’s 54-hole total of 192 by one stroke. In relation to par, Beber-Frankel also topped Bhatia’s record by a stroke.
“I definitely never had to ‘bounce back’ from a 60 before,” a smiling Beber-Frankel said. “It was a fun experiment to see what happened.”
Said Claycomb: “I think I have to go really low tomorrow.”
Mao and Notre Dame recruit Palmer Jackson of Murryville, Pa., each shot 64 and were third and fourth, respectively, at 195 and 196.
LSU recruit Drew Doyle, 17, of Louisville, Ky., recorded a hole-in-one on the 151-yard sixth hole with a 9-iron on the way to a 62, the low round of the third round.
“I was on Cloud 9 after it, but I was able to focus on my shots even though it was still in the back of my mind,” Doyle said.
Heath, Claycomb, Mao and Beber-Frankel each had at least a share of the lead in the final round, and the outcome fittingly wasn’t decided until the final green.
The low Connecticut finisher was Ben James, 16, of Milford, who birdied the first three holes on the way to 66-266 and a tie for ninth, continuing a recent hot streak. He won the American Junior Golf Association event in Killington, Vt., and the Connecticut State Golf Association Junior Championship before finishing third overall and low amateur in the Connecticut Open.
“I really didn’t putt that well today with four lip-out, but I also had some good putts,” said James, 15, who will be a sophomore at Hamden Hall High. “I just wanted to play well and missed my goal by a shot or two. But I had fun in a national championship playing with some friends that I’ve played with before. I’ve been playing well because my wedges have improved, and now I just have to go back to keep working hard, work on my TrackMan, putting drills, keep doing what I’m doing. (Winning) does help.”
James will try for his next win in the Northern Junior Championship at New Haven Country Club on Monday and Tuesday. Chris Fosdick, 18, of Middlefield and Alex Aurora, 18, of Hamden will also be competing the Northern Junior Championship.
Fosdick, 18, of Middlefield and Will Lodge, 15, of Darien, each shot 69 for 274 and a tie for 28th. Alex Aurora, 18, of Hamden shot 75 for 281 and a tie for 59th and Greenwich native William Celeberti, 18, Ridgewood, N.J., had 64 for 277 and a tie for 39th. Among those who missed the 141 cut were Alexander Gu, of Darien (142); Hartford native Jonathan Elkins, 18, of South Deerfield, Mass. (149); Jeremy Yun, 16, of Old Saybrook and Menlo Park, Calif. (149); and Tyler Woodward, 17, of Darien (153).
The third hole-in-one of the championship occurred in the final round when Georgia Tech commit Aidan Kramer, 17, of Oviedo, Fla., used a 5-iron to ace the 203-yard 18th hole. Doyle recorded his ace in the third round, and Roberts made a hole-in-one on the 188-yard 13th hole with a 6-iron in the second round.
More than 50 college coaches attended the championship, including notable schools such as Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Georgia Tech, LSU, Oklahoma, North Carolina and UCLA.
During the awards ceremony, Whaley thanked the dozens of volunteers, notably “the divot patrol” of Gary and Mim Reynolds, the City of Hartford and the officials and staffs at Keney Park and the Connecticut Section PGA, which hosted PGA of America national championships for the first time. Executive director Tom Hantke headed the workers from the Section, which also will host the PGA annual meeting in October 2020, when Whaley’s reign as president ends.
As she did after the Girls PGA Junior Championship, Whaley again said how proud she was of the efforts of the Section that she was part of for decades and Keney Park, which was 20 minutes from where she used to live in Farmington.
“It was so much fun to meet the kids and their families in an event that the PGA thinks of as a major,” Whaley said. “We want everyone to have an incredible experience.”
After returning to her new home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., for some PGA business and meetings, Whaley will have her own “incredible” experience when she caddies for younger daughter Kelly in LPGA Tour qualifying school Aug. 19-25 at Mission Hills Country Club (Dinah and Palmer Courses) in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and Shadow Ridge Golf Club in Palm Desert, Calif.
Kelly Whaley, who held the Keney Park women’s course record of 65 before the Girls PGA Junior Championship, is a recent grad of the University of North Carolina, her mother’s alma mater, where she started in every tournament for four years, had the two lowest scores in school history and was the only Tar Heel to shoot all three rounds in the 60s in winning the Briar’s Creek Invitational (68-67-69). She also was a three-time winner of the Connecticut Women’s Amateur, a CIAC champion and All-State and Player of the Year in her freshman year at Farmington High School. She then transferred to the IJGA Golf Academy in Hilton Head, S.C., where she was a member of the National Honor Society.
Kelly turned pro last month and earned $2,800 in her Symetra Tour debut, which was more than her mother made while making three cuts in her first year on the LPGA Tour in 1990.
“How about that,” Suzy said with a smile.
The PGA of America is one of the world’s largest sports organizations, composed of PGA professionals who daily work to grow interest and participation in the game of golf. The 2020 Boys and Girls Junior PGA Championships will be played at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla., which is owned and operated by the PGA of America.