Like a football team protecting its home field, the Willard Tigers golf team made sure nobody finished ahead of them on Thursday as they played host to the annual Willard Invitational at Greene Hills Country Club.
Led by a tremendous five-player performance on the front nine in which they shot an average score of just under 43, the Tigers finished the day with an overall tally of 346 – edging out Republic and Bolivar for the top spot.
CLICK HERE FOR PHOTOS
“Our guys played really well on the front today,” Willard coach Matt Stone said. “It's nine holes that they're comfortable with because we play them every day in practice. We've kind of struggled in tournaments this year, but we've known what our potential is and, finally, they were able to go out there and put together a solid front nine.”
Willard's Jacob Shackelford posted a team-high 38 through the first nine holes, while Sage Whiting, Taylor Hession, Brayden Swearengin and Damian Engelbrecht produced scores of 40, 40, 41 and 54, respectively.
While the Tigers easily came away with the strongest front-nine scores out of the eight squads competing for a team title, the final nine holes brought with them a fair share of tribulations, due in large part to an increasing breeze as play through the back-nine began.
“It makes a couple of holes on the back nine a little bit more difficult,” Stone said about the wind. “You've got some short approach shots into the wind that you kind of have to be careful with in regards to what you're doing off the tee. It probably played a little bit of a role in the scores.”
After shooting a combined 213 in the first half of play, Stone's team managed a less impressive 236 on the back end, but was kept afloat by the solid effort of senior Taylor Hession.
Hession was one of the few on the afternoon who didn't succumb to the late wind swirling through the Par 70 course – shooting a 43 over the final nine holes and finishing with a 13-over 83 to claim a third-place tie with Bolivar's Drake Johnson.
The senior's strong showing was highlighted by a splendid birdie on Hole 4, a Par 4 spanning 361 yards.
“I just went out there, had a good drive and hit the second shot onto the green,” Hession said of his Hole 4 birdie.
Willard finished just two strokes ahead of arch-rival Republic, which finished with a score of 348. Bolivar took third with a count of 376.
“More than anything today, we're just really pleased with the way our guys played and competed against themselves,” Stone added. “For us to go out there and finally see what we're capable of, I think this is going to do a lot for their confidence going forward here in the next couple of weeks.”
Individual first-place honors went to Galena's Adam Cunnyngham, who shot a seven-over 77 to finish five strokes ahead of Bolivar's Blake Hoffman (82).
Cunnyngham, who remained rather stoic after his fine achievement, never ran into any real trouble through any of the course's 18 holes.
“I was just kind of feeling it out there,” Cunnyngham said. “I wasn't hitting some wayward shots. I had a rough last couple of holes, but other than that it was a really solid round of golf.”
The short game was the strongest facet of Cunnyngham's performance – consistently making good from the green to pull away from his competition and enter a realm of his own.
“I wasn't hitting the greatest chips, but I was making up for it with my putting,” Cunnyngham said.
Final Team Scores:
1. Willard, 346
2. Republic, 348
3. Bolivar, 376
5. Fair Grove, 406
6. Stockton, 410
7. Ash Grove, 417
8. Sarcoxie, 436
Top 10 Individuals:
1. Adam Cunnyngham, Galena, 77
2. Blake Hoffman, Bolivar, 82
T-3. Taylor Hession, Willard, 83
T-3. Drake Johnson, Bolivar, 83
T-5. Jacob Shackelford, Willard, 85
T-5. Tristan Ollar, Republic, 85
T-5. Alex Holden, Republic, 85
8. Sage Whiting, Willard, 86
T-9. Hunter Beard, Hollister, 89
T-9. Mitch Coiner, Republic, 89