AUSTIN, Texas – Jacob Eklund’s deft touch on the golf course comes, at least in part, from a keen spectator’s eye. When Eklund felt his game going south earlier this month, he drew inspiration from a trip to last week’s PGA Championship.
For Eklund, a freckle-faced 16-year-old with orange curls, watching major-championship golf is old hat. He was in the stands at the 2011 U.S. Open, ’11 PGA Championship, ’13 U.S. Open and this year’s PGA Championship. A native of Carbondale, Ill., Eklund also attends the John Deere Classic every year.
“I was on 18 when (Jordan Spieth) holed the bunker shot,” Eklund said Tuesday at the Under Armour/Jordan Spieth Championship, minutes before Spieth took the stage for a clinic.
Eklund, of course, is referencing Spieth’s sole PGA Tour victory, the 2013 John Deere, which Spieth won in a playoff after holing out from the bunker at No. 18. It’s part of the connection Eklund feels with Spieth, who, at 21, is just five years his senior.
“I kind of look up to him,” said Eklund. “Very impressive what he’s done at an early age.”
Eklund gave Spieth reason to take notice at the University of Texas Golf Club on Tuesday. His 4-under 67 gave put him in a tie with Chandler Phillips, the No. 3-ranked player in Golfweek’s Junior Rankings for the state of Texas. Eklund had five birdies and a bogey, and needed just 26 putts throughout the day. It was vastly different from the way Eklund’s game looked last month.
While Eklund is in Austin – his last junior tournament of the summer, and one he chose in part because of Spieth’s involvement – his classmates are buckling down for the first official day of school back at Carterville High School.
Carterville is a public school, with a football obsession typical of the Midwest. Eklund made his way to the 1A State High School Championship each of the past two years, finishing fourth and third, respectively. Carterville moves to the 2A level this year, and Eklund already looks to be competitive.
Taking an immediate lead will present a good learning experience for Eklund, whose claim to fame is pulling off seemingly impossible come-from-behind victories. He came from six shots back April 20 to win the Plantation Junior Golf Tour’s stop at TPC Deere Run, site of the John Deere. Eklund made par from the same 18th-hole bunker as Spieth, found himself in a tie for first, then birdied the first hole of sudden death – No. 18 – to win.
As a high-school freshman last year, he came from five shots back to win the Blue-Grey Tournament in Phoenix despite a record-setting amount of rain falling in the desert that week.
In the girls’ division, Hailee Cooper’s situation couldn’t be any different. Cooper is an incoming freshman at Montgomery High School in Montgomery, Texas. The Lady Bears have won 11 4A state titles since 2001. Cooper’s junior-golf victories have been more traditional.
Already, Cooper will take one AJGA victory (at the Goodman Networks Junior) and two runner-up finishes in AJGA events into her freshman year. Cooper also made it to the second round of match play at the U.S. Girls’ Junior before falling to Brigitte Dunne on the 19th hole.
Cooper is happy to have such experiences because Montgomery’s legacy presents a fair bit of pressure for an underclassman.
“It’s a big responsibility to hold the state championships,” she said. “We’ve always had good golf teams.”
On Tuesday, Cooper chipped in for eagle at the par-5 11th, birdied the 14th and had 16 pars to go with those two holes. She hit 17 greens during her round, which is typical of her game. Cooper calls herself an extremely good iron player.
Still, the most notable thing about Cooper is her hot-pink driver, a club visible in Cooper’s hands from many yards away. Cooper was promised the driver if she could defend her title at the 2012 Starburst Junior Golf Classic in Waco, Texas. She not only did that, but won again in 2014.
It’s hard to miss Cooper – on the course and on the scoreboard.