It seemed a triumphant end to Cory Whitsett’s celebrated high-school career, even if his final hole got off to an inauspicious start.
Standing on the 18th tee, needing a par to win his second Texas state high school championship May 14, Whitsett blocked his drive into a pond. Suddenly, his furious back-nine rally appeared for naught.
Not to worry. Whitsett, the 2007 U.S. Junior Amateur champion, dropped on the other side of the pond to get a better angle, took a swipe with a 5-iron and stiffed his approach to 6 inches. A tap-in par. A one-stroke victory over Jordan Spieth, the country’s top-ranked junior. A rousing start to the summer.
“I was kind of in shock,” said Whitsett, a senior at Memorial High School in Houston who will play for Alabama in the fall. “It was a good way to go out.”
But his outlook soured quickly. After a 5 1/2-hour rain delay midway through the final round of the 36-hole event, five groups were still on the course as darkness began to cover Jimmy Clay Golf Course in Austin. At 7:20 p.m., with at least 45 minutes of daylight left and the final group on No. 16, tournament officials suspended play. Because every group didn’t finish the second 18 holes, officials decided to count the event as a 27-hole tournament – 18 holes from the first round Thursday, and the front nine of Friday’s round.
Whitsett’s back-nine 32 essentially was erased. So, too, was his final-round 66. He and Spieth were named co-champions.
“It was pretty unbelievable,” Whitsett, 18, said. “Officially, it’s disappointing. But I know what happened. The 200 people on the 18th hole know what happened, too. Word spreads fast in golf.”
It was an unusual – and disheartening – end to Whitsett’s high-school career. And two days later, he still felt slighted.
“It wasn’t the best-run tournament, that’s for sure,” Whitsett, who was Golfweek’s top-ranked junior throughout much of 2008, said Sunday.
“I’m still kind of at a loss for words with how it went down,” said Spieth, a junior at Dallas Jesuit and the 2009 U.S. Junior champion. “There’s no other way to say it. I can’t say he won. I can’t say I won. It was a weird day.”
Trailing Spieth by a shot entering the final round, and playing about an hour behind him, Whitsett bogeyed the first hole and was 1 over through three. Then, while standing in the fourth fairway, the horn blew.
Spieth, playing as an individual after his team failed to advance to the finals, had just birdied Nos. 4, 6 and 7 to pad his lead. He ripped his tee shot down the eighth fairway, then was pulled off the course as severe weather moved into the area. (The same storm system, mind you, that wiped out second-round play at the Valero Texas Open.)
And for the better part of the next five hours, Whitsett sat in the cart barn, watching the rain fall. Spieth passed the time by watching Avatar in his coach’s car.
Rules officials told the players it was unlikely that each group would finish all 36 holes, meaning only the front-nine score would count.
“It didn’t change the way I played at all,” Spieth said. “I didn’t change my strategy. It is what it is.”
Shortly after players were allowed to resume their rounds, Spieth stood over a 4-foot putt on the ninth green.
“I thought to myself, ‘If we’re going to play 27 holes, this is probably going to be to win,’ ” said Spieth, and after he missed that short putt, he knew Whitsett would come out firing over his final nine holes.
• • •
Two hours later, when Spieth tapped in on No. 18 to post his two-round total of 8-under 136, he figured he would finish one stroke shy of defending his state title. He was right. Whitsett blazed through the back nine and came to the 477-yard par-4 18th hole, with water guarding both sides of the fairway, with a one-stroke lead.
He pushed his tee shot left, the ball splashing down in the pond. Spieth, waiting behind the green, thought Whitsett would make double bogey and lose the tournament outright. Knowing he needed par to win, Whitsett took a drop left of the pond, near the 10th fairway. From 215 yards out, the left-hander slung a 5-iron over the pond, over another hazard bordering the green, and landed his approach perfectly into the bank, the ball trickling within 6 inches of the cup.
“It was ridiculous,” Whitsett said.
“One of the greatest shots I’ve ever seen,” Spieth said.
But, in the end, it didn’t matter. The horn blew again almost immediately after Whitsett putted out, and with five groups still on the course, there was no chance every player could finish 36 holes. Scores after 27 holes were counted.
And that leaderboard read: Whitsett 103, Spieth 103.
“I wasn’t too pleased,” Whitsett said. “And I told one of the guys after, ‘Y’all are missing a 32 on the board.’ ”
“I can understand where he’s coming from,” said Spieth, who next year will have a chance to end his high-school career with three consecutive state titles. “I told him after, ‘Hey man, that was one heck of a shot you pulled off. Don’t let this finish take away from that. I know you got me by one today.’ ”
Even if the record book will say differently.