KJGA Junior Week at Emporia Municipal
Seeded 14th in a 16-player bracket, your expectations have to be realistic. The chances of even playing another golfer with a lower seed are small.
So Mission Hills’ Preston Fleenor, a No. 14 and a sophomore this fall at Kansas City’s Pembroke Hill High School, began climbing the ladder one rung at a time at last month’s Junior Match Play Championship at Emporia Municipal Golf Course.
Four match victories later in the sweltering Kansas summer sun, including triumphs over the bracket’s top 3 seeds, and Fleenor was the 2012 Junior Match play champion.
“I knew I played pretty well at the Kansas Junior Am and I got second alternate at the U.S. Junior Am qualifier…that’s what got me in the tournament,” said the 15-year-old Fleenor. “I knew that if I played pretty well both those days I would have really good expectations for myself coming (out) in the top four and that eventually happened.”
With a birdie on the final hole to down top-seeded Colby Yates 1 up in the championship match, Fleenor made it to the top one.
“I haven’t had an achievement or a big victory in quite a while so it felt really good as soon as that putt rolled in on 18,” Fleenor admitted. “It felt really good receiving that championship trophy.”
Upsets on road to title
Fleenor, a Missouri district champion as a freshman last year who finished fourth at the state tourney in Springfield, may have felt like he’d hit from behind every tree on Emporia Municipal’s front side during his title tilt with Yates. Bogeys at the par-3 fifth and par-4 sixth holes had allowed him to fall 2 down to the Kansas 4A state champion at the turn. Yates’ front nine included a birdie 3 at the 419-yard second hole.
But the 14 seed hadn’t lost hope as they rounded the turn in a golf cart provided players due to the triple-digit heat.
“I had a couple bad breaks on the first nine…I had to hit under some trees and stuff,” he recalled. “It didn’t go my way on the first nine and I always said to myself ‘Let’s try and keep it close…if we can get this where you’re one or two down going to the back side…don’t make this a total blowout. Just gain some confidence.’ I eventually grinded through a couple tough situations and got it to 2 down going to the back side.”
Yates then found the bunker off the tee at the par-3 13th and followed that with a bad drive on the par-4 14th, allowing his rival to square the match.
“Thirteen and 14 killed me,” admitted Yates, who’d defeated No. 19 Caleb Haight 2&1 in the first round, and No. 9 Alex Springer 5&4 in the second before edging No. 5 Zach Kirby 1 up in the semifinals. “He didn’t have to putt at either of those holes. It got to the point where I just told him to pick up. At 13 I hit it in the bunker and skulled it over the green… At 14 I had driver problems.”
The players halved Nos. 15, 16 and 17 before Fleenor hit a second shot to close range on the final hole. Yates missed a 10-foot birdie putt setting the stage for Fleenor’s effort. When that putt dropped the Pembroke Hill golfer had his first KGA title.
“The only other time I’d played (no. 18) the whole week was my first match and they played (the tee) all the way up so I didn’t know what to do,” Fleenor recalled. “I took it over the left side of the trees. I was a good 30 yards behind Colby. I knew if I could hit a good shot it would put a little bit of pressure on him. I hit a really good shot. It went right at the pin…to about 3 feet and I made the putt.”
Fleenor opened the Championship with a 19-hole upset of No. 3 Cameron Wiltse. He polished off No. 11 Ben Hargrave 5&4 in the quarterfinals to set a semifinal tussle with No. 2 seed Seth Bryan. Fleenor took a 4 up lead over Winfield’s Bryan before the latter rallied with two birdies to pull within one hole on the back side. Fleenor then rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt at the 17th hole to close out Bryan 2&1.
“I started off well. I made some good birdies; Seth made some birdies. Seth made a couple mistakes and I did capitalize on those mistakes,” Fleenor said. “At the end, I missed a short putt at 14 and he made two good birdies in a row and he was one down with two to go. He barely missed his birdie putt on 17 and I said ‘Let’s close it out right here.’”
Yates, Metro gain Section triumphs
Yates, coming off a fine showing at The Railer Stroke Play Championship of Kansas, began a big week in Emporia by capturing individual honors in the Section Team event. He opened the 36-hole competition with a 73, but carded the only under-par score of the tourney on day two with a 69 to finish at even.
“I figured there would be more than just me, but it played tough with the wind and the heat...it was 100 degrees. It was challenging getting around this golf course,” said Yates, who earned the No. 1 seed for the Junior Match Play later in the week. “It was huge. I’ve had a great summer…coming off The Railer. Probably the thing that disappointed me most was the Kansas Junior. I didn’t want to play like that. I came off The Railer and I came here and was able to win... That gives me so much confidence going into the Amateur.”
Yates, trailing four players by two shots headed into the second round of the Section Team, waited until his second nine of the day – Emporia Municipal’s front side, to make his move. After shooting even-par 35 on the back side with nine straight pars, he made birdies at Nos. 4, 6 and 9 in carding his 2-under 69.
“I just hit it to 20 feet…and couldn’t make anything and then I made bogey over here on No. 2,” Yates recalled. “Then I rattled off three coming in. On (no.) 4, I put it in the middle of the fairway and stuck it to a tap-in. I rolled in about an 18-footer on six. I had like an 80-yard (third) shot on nine. I hit that to about 10 feet and made it. When I was on nine…I thought I needed a birdie to win and it turned out I did.”
Yates said he didn’t play that badly the first day, but three bogeys and only one birdie left him at 2-over 73. That was a little bit behind the pace he thought it would take to win.
“It wasn’t bad…I just couldn’t get anything to roll in that day,” he said. “I was happy with it. It was a little breezy. I went out and ate dinner with Jordan Hecker and Ben Hargrave the night before and I said ‘2- or 3-under would win it’ and they thought even or something over would win it. So that kind of surprised me when (even par led).”
Yates’ even-par 142 in the Emporia heat, gave him a one-shot win over Overland Park’s Wiltse. Wiltse had a 73 in the second round after opening the event with an even-par 71. Wichita’s Wells Padgett was another shot after rounds of 71 and 73 left him at 144. Topeka’s Barrett Perry (72-74) claimed fourth at 146. Russell’s Hecker (75-73) was fifth, a shot ahead of four players.
The Metro section extended its first round lead to win the team title by 77 shots with a two-day total of 1,695 at Emporia Municipal. After winning last year at Mariah Hills in Dodge City, the West section came from behind to capture second place with a two-day total of 1,772. Other team totals are as follows: North Central-1,773, South Central-1,783, Northeast-1,786 and Southeast 1,853.
The Kansas squad for the Kansas-Nebraska Junior Cup matches was assembled at the conclusion of the Section Team/Junior Match Play events in Emporia and the following week’s Kansas Amateur Championship in Newton. Kansas juniors who’ll face their Nebraska counterparts in the Ryder Cup-Style matches Aug. 8-10 at Colbert Hills Golf Course in Manhattan included: Fleenor, Mission Hills; Yates, Tonganoxie; Kirby, Dodge City; Travis Mays, Overland Park; Wiltse, Lenexa; Zach Tate, Leawood; Ronnie McHenry, Topeka; and Hargrave, Salina.
“It will be one of the biggest honors I’ve ever had because at the beginning of the summer it was one of my goals. I’d already signed with a college so I didn’t have to play in any of the AJGA events and I could just focus on the Kansas (tournaments),” Yates said of making the Kansas squad which will consist exclusively of Cup first-timers. “And I said my goal was to make the Kansas Nebraska Cup team at the beginning of the summer. That will be pretty cool.”