Austin Eckroat digs deep, keeps chances of a Sage Valley repeat alive

Austin Eckroat Sally Kolar Photography

Austin Eckroat digs deep, keeps chances of a Sage Valley repeat alive

Junior

Austin Eckroat digs deep, keeps chances of a Sage Valley repeat alive

GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – In golf, sometimes players don’t always have their best stuff. For Austin Eckroat’s mom, Natalie, she likes to call those days “Sportsmanship Days” because they give Austin opportunities to show his character in the face of adversity.

On Thursday at the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, where Eckroat is the defending champion, he was on the verge of having one of those days. He birdied his opening hole but then hit his tee ball into the water at the par-4 third and made double bogey. After bogeys at Nos. 5 and 9, and facing a bogey putt at the par-5 10th, Eckroat needed to dig in.

“I was playing ping-pong back and forth over the green, chipped to like 15 feet, and I was thinking if I can keep it at 3 over, I can get it back to even,” Eckroat said. “And I ended up doing a little better.”

Eckroat rattled off three straight birdies after that and added a fourth, at No. 15, for good measure. His 1-under 71 left the Oklahoma State signee in a tie for seventh and just four shots off the lead shared by Cameron John and Joaquin Niemann.

“I knew I could get it back, but I was thinking ‘Oh no, I hope this isn’t the curse of winning and then playing bad,’ ” Eckroat said. “I know I’m not a fluke but it would kind of look like it if I was to post a 78.”

But he didn’t, and now Eckroat still has a chance to make history at Sage Valley. No player has repeated as champion of the event, now in its seventh year.

Eckroat said his victory at Sage Valley last year made him more confident. It showed Thursday.

“I really wasn’t more nervous,” Eckroat said. “It was kind of cool when they announced my name and said ‘defending champ’ on the first tee. It made me think a little bit, but I hit a good tee ball.”

Eckroat followed his Sage Valley win with a pair of top 10s in AJGA invitationals last year. He also made it to the Round of 16 at the U.S. Junior Amateur. However, he also missed some time with injuries to his right elbow and back.

“At Junior PGA (last July), I could barely swing,” said Eckroat, who didn’t need surgery but rather just some cortisone shots and rest.

Thursday evening, he’ll rest knowing he grinded out a nice round to stay in contention for a second gold jacket.

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