By Greg Gulas
Boardman’s Cole Christman and Brookfield’s Justin Atkinson in boys 17-U, Canfield’s Hannah Keffler and Erica Hoover of New Wilmington, Pa., in girls 17-U and a bevy of talented golfers in the 14-U divisions eye titles in this year’s Greatest Golfer of the Valley juniors championship, which begins Friday at Avalon Golf and Country Club.
The two-day event gets under way with opening round play Friday in both 17-U divisions at Squaw Creek Country Club. It will conclude Saturday with 14-U action and final round play in 17-U.
In all, 46 golfers will tee off and they come from 18 Mahoning Valley golf courses and five counties. Greatest Golfer is in its ninth season — produced by The Vindicator and hosted by Farmers National Bank, Covelli Enterprises and Superior Beverage along with 14 other companies and golf course sponsors.
Christman, who is playing in his fifth Greatest event, participated in just one qualifier with his 68 at Trumbull Country Club on June 14 being the top round of this year’s six events.
A five-time qualifier, he is a three-time-champion having won 17-U laurels in 2016 and back-to-back 14-U championships in 2014-15.
Since qualifying, he’s traveled extensively and placed eighth at the Hudson Juniors, finished in the top 30 at a recent American Junior Golf Association event in Cookeville, Tenn. Despite missing the cut, Christman played well at last week’s IMG Academy Junior World Championships in San Diego.
“I had a really solid day at Trumbull and I needed to because there were plenty of good scores,” he said. “It was nice to get over that hump because I really don’t shoot my best on that course.”
He said his scores at last week’s IMG Academy weren’t indicative of his play, choosing this week to concentrate solely on the Greatest championship.
“I played better than my scores indicate and I was pleased with my overall performance,” he said. “I’ll concentrate on the juniors this week, especially at Squaw Creek so that I can get re-acclimated to the course. It’s tricky with tough distance on tee shots, so practice rounds will help me get readjusted.”
It will be all business starting Friday, according to Christman.
“I will definitely need to bring my ‘A’ game and keep my focus,” he said. “There are plenty of excellent golfers in this field who can win. So focus, bringing my best short game and playing two solid rounds will be the key.”
Atkinson, who calls Yankee Run his home course, carded 76 in the first qualifier at Pine Lakes on May 6.
He’s played in five straight Greatest events and is looking for his first title.
“It helped a lot to win the first qualifier, but I will need the entire week in order to get ready because I’m not hitting the ball that great right now,” Atkinson said. “I haven’t played a complete round, but have a week to get everything in order.
“My chipping game, especially inside 40 yards, has been all right and I like both Avalon courses. There’s a lot of water, so I’ll need to play straight in order to stay out of trouble.”
Keffler and Hoover head a talented girls field with Keffler winning the 14-U crown in 2016 and finishing in the top-three all six years that she has played.
Academically sound (she sports a 4.341 cumulative grade point average), she’s already scored 30 on her ACT test and hopes to become an engineer.
She qualified at Trumbull Country Club, shooting 80 which was eight strokes better than her nearest competitor.
“I’ve played all right, but I have been off my game a bit so I used the other qualifiers to get ready.” Keffler said. “I like Avalon because it isn’t too tough, as long as you aren’t having an off-day.
“This is my last Greatest event and I’ve had a lot of fun. I used to look up at the other girls and see what they shot, now I am shooting those scores.
“If I expect to win, I will need to putt well, especially at Squaw Creek. My short game will have to be near perfect.”
Hoover is playing in her fifth Greatest event and is looking for her initial championship with a fourth-place finish last year her best performance.
She is one of just three players this year who have won multiple qualifiers. The others are Leah Benson in 14-U, who won five of six qualifying events, and Caleb Domitrovich, who won three 14-U events.
Hoover earned victories at Avalon Lakes on June 19 while defending her title on Thursday at Tam O’Shanter in Hermitage, Pa.
“I know both courses really well and feel like I am ready to go,” Hoover said. “I practice my short game and putting daily and that will be the key for me.
“Pin placements won’t matter because if you chip and putt well, at least you give yourself a chance. I’m striking the ball really well right now so I am pleased with that portion of my game.”
A member of New Castle Country Club, Hoover credits her swing coach, Craig Wise, with her development.
“Craig has really helped me a lot over the past two years,” she said. “Not only has he helped me with my swing, but my game management, putting and chipping as well.
“I’ve played with most of the finalists and this year it’s a very competitive field. The player that manages their game the best will be the winner.”
Benson carded her best round at Salem Hills last Tuesday when she shot 76 while Domitrovich won at Trumbull Country Club, Avalon Lakes and Mill Creek.
Adam Schuster, golf professional, is happy that Avalon is once again hosting the Greatest juniors championship.
“The Greatest Golfer of the Valley is an event that lets the kids play on one of the premier courses in the area and we’re very happy to once again serve as host,” Schuster said. “It gives them a true test to see where they stand with their game.
“It’s a longer course, complete with bunkers, walls and water that LPGA players have played on as both courses have hosted LPGA events in the past.”