OCEAN ISLE BEACH, N.C. – Two bunker adventures almost ruined Al Dickens’ shot at the biggest title of his young career. Instead, the high school senior gritted his teeth, shook the sand out of his shaggy blonde hair and donned his rally cap for a hard-fought victory at the Palmetto High School Championship.
Dickens, a senior at Charlotte (N.C.) Country Day, walked away with the individual title Saturday at the super-sized high school event. After cruising through the first 16 holes at Ocean Ridge Plantation’s Tiger’s Eye course in 2 under, Dickens hit a snag that nearly cost him the title. A bogey at the par-3 17th was followed by a sprayed drive at the par-4 finishing hole. His ball deep in a bunker on the right side of the fairway, Dickens was unable to get out on the first try. Two shots later, he found himself putting for bogey and what he thought was a tie for medalist. A miss left Dickens briefly disappointed, until he discovered minutes later that it instead left him tied with good friend Charles Spry, a senior at Forsyth High School (Lewiston, N.C.).
“If I had known it was to tie the whole thing, it would have made it a lot harder,” Dickens said of his final 2-footer of regulation.
And so Spry and Dickens trudged back to the 10th, where Dickens again dropped his drive in the bunker. He would overshoot the green, then ram in a 5-footer to extend the playoff to No. 11. A final par at that hole upped Dickens’ playoff record to 4-0. Standing beneath the giant scoreboard with his beaming team members watching, Dickens admitted the other playoff victories – a Big I qualifier, the Bubba Watson Junior Classic and another tournament he can’t even remember – seemed a bit like small potatoes.
With his even-par 144 total, Dickens also led the Bucs to the Palmetto team title. It’s the first victory for Charlotte Country Day this season and it, too, might seem smaller in retrospect if the rest of the season plays out as Dickens and his teammates are hoping.
“We can play terrible here and win state and I would be so happy,” said Dickens, quickly justifying the statement. “This is probably tougher competition.”
Still, the last of Charlotte Country Day’s nine state titles under head coach Bob Phyler came in 2003. Dickens would like to update that record before he leaves to pursue his golf career at East Carolina University in the fall. There isn’t a much better test than the Palmetto.
Not only does the tournament include teams from California to Canada to the Carolinas, but Friday’s opening round in a chilly downpour amounted to a test of wills for everyone involved. Dickens prevailed with a 1-under 71 to share the first-round lead with Spry. Even as Dickens walked away with the title, Spry, who will try to walk on at the University of North Carolina in the fall, can’t be counted out. As Forsyth head coach Dennis Ring noted, much of the freshmen surge that currently is moving through the ranks of this team can be traced to Spry’s leadership.
“When you have good kids like that leading your program, other kids underneath them will step into it and you kind of build a little momentum,” Ring said. “We’ve got seven ninth-graders on our varsity, and I wouldn’t have kept seven ninth-graders if I didn’t have Charles Spry to be one of the guys that they looked up to.”
The Palmetto could provide some good foreshadowing for what is to come at the state championship. Forsyth, which posted 14-over 302 in Friday’s muck to claim second on the leaderboard, made a strong case for itself.
“That showed a lot of moxie on a lot of our guys to come through like that,” Ring said.
For its part, Charlotte Country Day showed its ability to close this year, after dropping out of contention for last year’s title in the final nine holes. In many ways, it’s a story of a new year, a new team, and renewed hope for this squad as the state championship looms.
“Outside of our state tournaments, this is definitely the biggest tournament we’ve won,” Phyler said of the Palmetto. “We were close last year until the back nine, we let it sort of get away from us and got beat, but today our kids really hung in there well and we really got a lot of good play from a lot of guys.”
Charlotte Country Day counted an 11-over 299 in the final round. It was the only sub-300 score of the day, and put the team at 29-over 605 for the tournament. The Bucs’ victory spelled the second year of disappointment for pre-tournament favorite Forestview High School (Gastonia, N.C.). After losing last year’s championship in a playoff to La Quinta High School – a team that didn’t return this year – Forestview finished three shots behind Charlotte Country Day.
With Forsyth Country Day and Providence Day School (Charlotte, N.C.) claiming the next two spots on the leaderboard, this year’s Palmetto had a little different look. With the field size down nine teams, schools from the Carolinas dominated. The schools from in and around Charlotte (Charlotte Country Day, Charlotte Latin, Providence) made the biggest statement, and they’ll meet again in a little more than a week for their conference championship at Charlotte Country Club.
Regardless of the teams that made up the field, Phyler pointed to the amped-up atmosphere that surrounded the scoreboard late afternoon. After holding in their celebrations through Dickens’ playoff, the boys from Charlotte Country Day finally got to do a little celebrating. It was all exhausted smiles as the team trudged back to the van for the drive home.
“To see them so excited is really nice,” Phyler said. “They worked really hard and we know we beat a really good field down here, for sure.”