Hall wins Junior Players for 1st AJGA title

Gavin Hall hits his tee shot at No. 9 at the 2011 Junior Players at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL.-

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is no place for hesitation, and Gavin Hall had plenty of reasons for uncertainty. A wrist injury. Swing thoughts. That gaping hole on an otherwise sterling resume. And in the span of six holes Sunday at the AJGA Junior Players, Hall went from five ahead to three up to only one in front - the kind of stretch that makes for great spectating, yes, but also causes heart palpitations.

In the end, though, the purest ballstriker - the one who keeps the ball out of the grabby rough and avoids the numerous hazards - always seems to reign supreme in these parts. So after forfeiting his five-shot lead, Hall played steady, if unspectacular, golf on the calamitous back nine at TPC Sawgrass and hung on to win his first AJGA event in a career that figures to be full of significant titles.

“It’s been a crazy weekend,” said Hall, who closed with 75 to finish at 3-under 211. “I’m just happy to get the victory.”

That his maiden triumph came this week was the most stunning. The Junior Players was only his second start since mid-June, and his first since knocking the rust off at last month’s Junior PGA Championship, where he tied for 10th. Since that major event, Hall, of Pittsford, N.Y., has been able to practice at three area courses - Oak Hill, Mendon GC and Monroe GC - without restriction. That alone was a marked improvement from the past few months, after the left-hander underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right wrist in March. At the time, that procedure was merely to repair “wear and tear” from golf and basketball, and he recovered in time to win the New York State high school championship. But in June, during a practice round for his hometown Monroe Invitational, Hall jammed his wrist while hitting out of the rough and was forced to shut it down for six weeks. One doctor recommended removing a bone in his wrist. Another said he should rest for six months. “He didn’t want to come back and play with pain,” said Gavin’s mother, Mary Ellen. “Mentally, that wouldn’t have been a good idea.”

And time was running out, too. Already the leaves are beginning to change in western New York, and the golf season lasts, typically, for another two months. Hall intended to play only twice more - this week and the AJGA Ping Invitational in October - before stowing away the clubs for the long winter, his final attempts to salvage a lost season.

At TPC Sawgrass, Hall opened with a 72 before a sizzling 64 Saturday on his 17th birthday. Such proficiency on the Dye’s Valley course will bode well for when Hall returns to the First Coast in six weeks; the winner of the Junior Players receives an exemption into the Nationwide Tour’s Jacksonville Open on Oct. 20-23.

“I have to ask my principal for permission first,” Hall said, sheepishly. “I think it’s a pretty good excuse.” It would be his second foray into major-league golf, after he was awarded a sponsor exemption into the PGA Tour’s Turning Stone Championship last summer. He shot 78-71 to miss the cut, but learned how to handle the nerves and the crowds and the media requests. And during this trying summer, he also learned something else: how to handle adversity, injury and tempered expectations.

Said Mary Ellen: “This wasn’t the summer we expected, but he worked hard to get back so quickly. This is going to make him a better player.”

So will dealing with the drama of a final round at one of the most diabolical courses in the country. Entering the final round, Hall held a three-shot lead over Jim Liu, the 2010 U.S. Junior champ, who was in the midst of his own winless drought, having failed to win since last year at Egypt Valley. After the opening hole, Hall led by five when Liu made double bogey, but a front-nine 38 erased that advantage. So swift was Hall’s decline that it hardly registered as a surprise when he dropped into a share of the lead on the 14th.

But Liu twice found the water on the closing nine, none more critical than on the par-5 16th, when he rinsed his second shot with a 9-iron and took double bogey. Instead, UCLA commit Jonathan Garrick eagled the 16th, posted 68 and finished solo second, one shot back of Hall.

“Gavin deserves this,” said Liu (76), who tied for third. “I’m happy to see him win.”

Hall, No. 11 in Golfweek’s Junior Rankings, is one of the most highly recruited juniors in the country. With his combination of a power, precision and charisma, he is the complete package, enough to make any college coach salivate. (He expects to make unofficial visits to Alabama, Stanford, Georgia Tech and Auburn in the winter.) But until this week, he headlined without a national victory. Has a win at the Junior Players justified all the hype?

“I think this maybe solidifies it a little more,” Hall said, “but I feel like I can compete with the best juniors and some of the top amateurs, too. It’s been a fun ride on the national scene.”

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