WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — For a second straight year, a player too young to purchase alcohol came up with clutch shots down the stretch to hoist the Greenbrier Trophy.
A year ago, it was 19-year-old Mason Williams and this time, 20-year-old Alex Easthom.
Occasionally over the last few decades, a young player popped up and won, most recently Brian Anania in 2014 and Alan Cooke in 2016.
But these last couple of years have felt different with more and more young players not only appearing at or near the top of the leaderboard, but staying there.
The West Virginia Golf Association has increased its focus on youth golf in recent years and it begs a couple of questions.
First, is the surging number of young players a direct result of the First Tee, the Callaway Junior Tour and other WVGA initiatives? And second, has the guard changed for good in terms of major championships in the state of West Virginia?
“It’s our mission to promote and grow the game of golf and with that we use the First Tee of West Virginia, our Little General Junior Program, the National School Program and the Callaway Junior Tour,” WVGA Executive Director Brad Ullman said. “To have such a good youth contingency and opportunities for juniors to grow and play competitively, that’s where you’re starting to see a change in the guard.”
Williams, whose furious rally came up a shot short on Friday, agreed.
“I think so,” Williams said. “I think the curve is shifting toward the young guys that last couple of years.”
Pat Carter, a 13-time champion who finished in fourth this week, had a front-row seat for a lot of that youth. He played alongside Easthom on Thursday and Friday with Williams rounding out the group Thursday and Jackson Hill, a rising sophomore in college, completing the final group on Friday.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” Carter said. “It’s indicative of what you see on Tour too. You see so many young guys immediately coming out and winning. I think it’s a trickle down effect, what the young golfers are doing.”
One day, it’s going to happen for Scott Depot’s Chris Williams.
The former Winfield and West Virginia player narrowly missed another title on Friday as his rally — like Mason Williams’ — came up a shot short.
But while Mason Williams’ comeback was fairly expected, not many gave Chris Williams much of a look after two rounds as he sat at 6-over par after opening with rounds of 72 and 74.
“Really I found something on my driver and made a couple more putts,” Chris Williams said. “I hit my driver … honestly I don’t think I put one out of play in the last two days, so obviously that’s huge. And I made a few more putts, I didn’t make anything the first two days.”
Having played in the final group on the final day in both the West Virginia Amateur and West Virginia Open by the age of 25, the game is obviously there and so is the experience.
“I’m getting close,” he said. “You can always think one shot here and there, but I’ll get one, one day.”
While players like Easthom and Mason Williams are just getting started in terms of their golf careers, one ended in terms of play in the Amateur early on Friday.
Harold Payne, a five-time Amateur champion, four-time Open champion and Marshall and WVGA Hall of Famer, played his final 72 holes in the event this week, completing his tournament early in Friday’s proceedings.
Payne finished in a tie for 43rd, but made the cut for the 49th time in 50 West Virginia Amateurs. It was an emotional end, even if it happened long before the dramatic conclusion of the tournament.
“I hit a great shot into 18, I was probably six-to-eight feet for birdie and I had so many tears in my eyes that I couldn’t even see when I was putting and I left it short,” Payne said. “But I started thinking back and I think it was karma. My first round in 1969 was a 77 and my last round was a 77. There was no way I was going to make that putt.”
Friday’s round capped a roller coaster of a week for Payne who was 3-under through three holes in Tuesday’s first round before fading. He played those first two rounds alongside brother-in-law Steve Fox, Thursday’s third round with fellow Marshall Hall of Famer Jonathan Clark and Friday’s final round with friend Mike Keiffer.
“Mike and I have worked together for 15 years,” Payne said. “It was a pretty special amateur, it really was.”