New England Junior Amateur Championship: Massachusetts Dominates Awards, Ben James Becomes First Three-Time Individual Champion
CUMBERLAND. Maine - This year's New England Junior Amateur Championship featured a couple of historic developments. Massachusetts became the first state to win both the boys and girls team championships in the same year, then on top of that, Ben James (Connecticut) became the first player ever in the history of the New England Junior to three-peat as an individual champion.
The Mass Golf Boys shot 5-under-par to top Connecticut by 15 strokes in the team division, while the girls shot 34-over-par for a 12-stroke win over the next closest team in Rhode Island. In the girls individual division, Annie Dai (Massachusetts) defeated her fellow Bay State teammate MacKenzie Whitney in a three-hole playoff to earn the girls individual champion distinction.
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All three rounds, the Massachusetts boys were buoyed by a strong team effort. The strong play of Colin Spencer, Weston Jones, and John Broderick helped them get out to a 22-stroke lead by the end of round two and the well-rounded efforts continued into round three.
Ryan Downes, Joey Lenane, and Ethan Whitney all aided in the scoring department and although the boys were not as sharp as they had been on Monday, they did more than enough to get by with the win.
“It’s awesome,” Spencer said. “We played really well the first 36 holes and kind of gave ourselves a little bit of a cushion which is always good. We didn’t have our best stuff today, but we were able to win. I had a blast and I can’t wait for next year.”
Broderick echoed the same sentiment as his teammate in regards to the win, a victory that the Mass Boys desperately wanted coming into the event.
“It’s awesome,” Broderick said. “All of us are really good players and I think we all knew coming in that we could we could definitely beat anyone. Team Connecticut was probably our biggest rival, but we knew we could beat them. Then, to all play well and do it is pretty awesome.”
Downes in particular really helped the team. Though he is just 15-years-old, Downes scored in all three rounds for his team and was a major contributor.
“I putted pretty poorly the first two days, but I actually hit the ball pretty well,” Downes said. “I was kind of a little bit of flip-flop today, I putted a little better, but I didn’t hit the ball as well. So it was kind of inconsistent and not what I was exactly looking for, but it feels good because my score counted all three days.”
The win for the boys was wire-to-wire and as a bonus, they get to share the victory with the girls. It's the first time since girls were introduced to the team competition in 2019 that a state has swept the team honors.
“A Mass Golf sweep is always great, that’s going to make a good headline,” Broderick said with a laugh. “That’s really exciting and I don’t know if it’s ever happened before, but it’s super exciting to win and see the girls do it too.”
It is history, and it certainly does make for a great headline for Massachusetts.
The Mass Girls didn't dominate from start to finish like their counterparts on the boys side did, but they ended with a bang. The girls shot 10-over-par on Tuesday to put some separation between themselves and the field and win by a commanding 12 strokes.
All three competitors played well. MacKenzie Whitney set the tone early, Annie Dai finished strong, and Keira Joshi provided a steady presence throughout.
“It kind of feels unreal because I know the girls were very tight coming into this,” Dai said. “The boys were way ahead, but we had some tough competition and I really wasn’t trying to look at the leaderboard in the middle to know because I knew that I would stress myself out. So, I just played until the last hole and then checked.”
Dai fired an impressive round of 3-over-par 74, better than her mark of consecutive 78's that she had shot earlier in the week. She knew that one or more of the girls needed to step up to grab a win and she went ahead and did so herself.
“On the first few holes I was feeling really confident because my drives were a lot more consistent and I was hitting a lot more greens, then I made a few birdie putts,” Dai said. “Towards the end I started three-putting and I think I ended up with five three-putts, but it still ended pretty well with my score.”
Overall, the girls were similar to the boys in how well-rounded their performance was. That is even more impressive when considering that is was the first time all three ever played in the New England Junior.
“It was really cool,” Joshi said. “Getting to be here is definitely fun. I’m super proud of Annie and MacKenzie, I was checking the leaderboard all day and they were 1 and 2, I was thinking go get them. It’s definitely fun.”
Not only did they win, but the girls created a bond that will last well beyond their time spent at Val Halla.
“I know both of them, obviously girls golf is a small world,” Joshi said of Dai and Whitney. “We’re all friends going into this, but it’s definitely been a fun experience on the bus, in the hotel, and meeting the girls from the other states. I’ve definitely made some new friends.”
In addition to the friends, the girls made some history too.
Speaking of history, there may have been no accomplishment more impressive than that of Connecticut's Ben James winning the boys individual competition for a third consecutive year. James is the first competitor in the history of the New England Junior to do so.
“That achievement means so much to me,” James said. “This event, it’s my fourth time being here and I love our coach. We’re really good friends and with all of my friends just being here too it means a lot to win this event.”
James was under par in all three of his rounds shooting 67-66-66. He finished up the 54 holes with 1 eagle, 17 birdies, and just 6 bogeys. Jones is the No. 6 junior golfer in the world in the American Junior Golf Association Rankings and he showed why as he closes the book on his New England Junior career.
“It’s been a battle every year with me and the other competitors,” James said. “It’s just been awesome to kind of get it all together three consecutive times. I’ve played pretty well in all of them and I’m just happy to win my last one.”
More importantly, he was happy to do so alongside his friends.
“It was awesome,” he said. “We did our best with the COVID restrictions. We didn’t have too many, but we just had a lot of fun at the pool and we enjoyed ourselves. It was nice to spend some time with the girls too going out to get some ice cream. It was really fun.”
On the girls side of things, a playoff was needed to determine a winner. Both Annie Dai and MacKenzie Whitney shot 230 over the 54-holes and they had to shift from allies to competitors to determine a champion. Dai needed three holes to do so, but she eventually prevailed over the older Whitney to be crowned the individual champion.
“I feel kind of bad,” the 15-year-old said after the playoff with a laugh. “It was strange competing against each other when we came here together, but it was really fun to all play well.”
Winning and losing aside, Dai grew closer with Whitney over the course of the round and enjoyed playing and competing with her and Joshi.
“I didn’t know them that well,” Dai said of her teammates. ”Right before coming here I’d just met Keira in another competition or tournament, then we found out we were coming here together and we started talking more. When we got here we knew each other and with MacKenzie, I’d played with her a couple of times already. It was a lot of fun.”
Final Team Leaderboard (Boys)
1 – Massachusetts -5
2 - Connecticut +10
3 - Rhode Island +56
4 - Maine +60
5 - Vermont +77
6 - New Hampshire +94
Final Team Leaderboard (Girls)
1 - Massachusetts +34
2 - Rhode Island +46
3 - New Hampshire +49
4 - Maine +60
5 - Connecticut +62
6 - Vermont +126
Top Players From Each State (Boys)
Connecticut: Ben James; 67-66-66-199
Maine: Eli Spaulding; 69-72-71-212
Massachusetts: Colin Spencer; 70-64-70-204
New Hampshire: Bryce Zimmerman; 70-74-81-225
Rhode Island: Maxwell Jackson; 70-72-76-218
Vermont: Austin Giroux; 76-80-72-228
Top Players From Each State (Girls)
Connecticut: Kate Hong; 80-79-86-245
Maine: Ruby Haylock; 78-81-77-236
Massachusetts: Annie Dai; 78-78-74-230*
New Hampshire: June Doerr; 75-78-84-237
Rhode Island: Gianna Papa; 78-79-81-238
Vermont: Mia Politano; 97-91-86-274
*Won in playoff after tie with MacKenzie Whitney
Bay State Players Give Insight On Val Halla
The site of the offices for the Maine State Golf Association is also doubling as the host of the 2021 New England Junior Amateur Championship. Located at 58 Val Halla Road in Cumberland, Maine, the course is an ideal site for a tournament such as the New England Junior Amateur Championship.
The 18-hole track plays to a par-72 and the championship tees stretch back to 6,595 yards. With a 71.5 course rating and a slope of 130, the course presents a unique and exciting challenge for the Massachusetts players, especially when factoring in that none of them have played it previously.
The boys and girls certainly did not take long to get acclimated. Sunday's practice round was the first time all 8 Massachusetts players have ever been to the course, but having just the one round to adjust didn't reflect in their scores.
“It's super straightforward," MacKenzie Whitney said of the course. "There aren't really too many tricky shots you have to do. You just hit it straight and everything seems to work. Most of the par-4’s are the exact same, straight and then wedge in, two-putt for par.”
The design of Val Halla is simple, but the players still need to bring their best game with them to the course.
“You have to hit it well," John Broderick said. "Off the tee, if you’re not hitting it, you’re going to have some issues. There’s a lot of wedge opportunities, but you still have to hit it close. These greens are not crazy fast, but they can be firm in parts. You have to be in the right parts, some greens have a lot of break on them."
Weston Jones shared a similar sentiment regarding the course.
“It's a good course," Jones said. "It’s short, but it's not easy. You still got to hit some really good tee shots, some really good approaches, and then making putts is not an easy task out here. It’s difficult, which is great.”
The low scores help, but the Massachusetts players have certainly enjoyed their time they've spent at Val Halla. The crew played in a seven-some for the practice round on Sunday and that certainly helped them to gain some familiarity and comfort with their surroundings all while having some more fun.
“This has been an awesome experience," Colin Spencer said. “I wasn't really sure what to expect coming in, but it's fun. You can obviously make a lot of birdies which is just fun. It's nice to change it up a little bit, I’ve been at a lot of tough courses, so it's nice to play a course where you can make a bunch of birdies.”
They came in with little knowledge of the course, but the Mass boys and girls will certainly leave with some fond memories of the Val Halla track.
The New England Senior Amateur Championship will begin on September 14th at Manchester Country Club in Vermont.