College coaches welcome Hall back at Jr. PGA

Gavin Hall

FORT WAYNE, Ind. – Awaiting Gavin Hall on his first day back at work: 20 salivating college coaches. Funny, the six-week layoff seemed harder for them. As one college coach said: “Gavin Hall could miss the next two years and it still wouldn’t matter. We all want him.”

And why not? Hall, 16, is the 10th-ranked junior in the country, and his left-handed swing is powerful and rhythmical and balanced, and he greets everyone with a smile – players, parents, volunteers, officials, everyone. So that’s appealing. But he hasn’t yet won on the national level, and that’s why he’s here, at the Junior PGA Championship, despite a six-week layoff and a monthlong break looming. “It was fun being out there,” said Hall, after a first-round 75 at Sycamore Hills. “Just getting into that competitive grind – that’s what I want to do.”

Unfortunately, he hasn’t done that nearly enough this summer. In March, a few days after his high-school basketball season ended, Hall underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right wrist. (“Wear and tear,” he said.) When he returned three weeks later, he tied for 11th at the AJGA Thunderbird Invitational, then won the New York State high school state championship after making eagle on the final hole. But in June, during a practice round at the Monroe Invitational, Hall re-aggravated the injury while hitting out of the rough and hasn’t played since.

One doctor recommended removing a bone in his wrist. Another said he should rest for six months. “I just wanted answers,” said Hall, but nothing definitive, even now, has come. That’s the frustrating part: all the uncertainty. When will he play, and how will he play, and will his skills be diminished? Wrist injuries, we know, can be tricky. And three area doctors still can’t diagnose the problem.

So, he spent his summer on the lake with his friends. He caddied for Auburn junior Dominic Bozzelli when he won the New York State Amateur. He tracked tournaments online such as the U.S. Junior and the Porter Cup, events he normally plays, and that was hard to stomach.

“You work so hard in the beginning of the year to get back for the summer,” said Hall, of Pittsford, N.Y., “and then something like this happens.”

When he arrived in Fort Wayne, Hall had practiced full shots for only a week. Does it hurt when he swings? No. Do some shots give him pause? Yes, but only a few. That comes with the territory. Wrist injuries, we know, can be tricky.

Hitting fairways certainly helps, and Hall did that often Tuesday. But, not surprisingly, there also were signs of rust. His rinsed tee shot on 7. His misjudged wedge on 9. His sloppy bogey on the par-5 12th. And then there were glimpses of his potential, the kind of shots that justify his swelling gallery. After all, he shot 3 over par with four birdies.

“With certain shots (the wrist) is not cooperative, but it’s not an excuse,” he said. “The score is what I shot today.”

His performance on the greens was particularly frustrating. As he said: “I should be putting really well after all the chipping and putting I’ve done in the past two months.” A few months ago, he switched to a cross-handed grip – right-hand low – because his putting has been “atrocious” since the fall. It feels comfortable to him. So comfortable, in fact, that he made the change on the 13th hole in the final round of the state championship in June. With six holes to play, with the state title on the line, he changed the way he gripped the putter and won. He’s that kind of talent.

Which helps explain why he wasn’t crestfallen with the 75 he posted here at Sycamore Hills that left him nine shots back of leader Zachary Wright with 54 holes to play. Chalk it up to the rust or the wrist or something else. The horde of college coaches following him didn’t seem terribly concerned, either.

“I just need one round to get me going,” Hall said. “I feel like these next three days will be really good.”

Whatever happens, you know who will be watching.

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