Boys golf: Freshman keeps cool to reach state tournament
RIFLE — Jacob Smith was pretty nervous during the tail end of the Class 4A Western Slope Regional golf tournament in Durango on Sept. 16. He just didn’t play like it.
“I was highly under pressure, I’d say,” a grinning Smith said almost a week after barely making the Class 4A State Championships by winning a three-person playoff hole at Hillcrest Golf Club. “That was probably one of the most stressful holes of my life, especially when everyone is watching you like they were.”
That small gallery of what Smith and Rifle coach Matt Rowe described as about 50 people watched the Rifle High freshman par that playoff hole, barely missing a birdie on the par-4 hole that would have solidified his state-tournament berth even more. And with that, Smith will be the first Rifle High freshman in recent memory to have a chance to play for a state title when the tournament takes place Sept. 29 and 30 at Walking Stick Golf Course in Pueblo.
Smith is one of four Garfield County golfers who earned a state-tournament berth that day. Coal Ridge junior Riley Tamburello earned his third state tournament berth thanks to his fifth-place finish in the 3A Western Slope Regional, which was also played in Durango. The other two are Basalt golfers Roger Gauthier and Linc Kleager, both of whom attend Glenwood Springs High School and play for the Longhorns as part of the Roaring Fork School District’s co-op agreement.
The Class 3A State Championships will be played at Northeastern 18 Golf Course in Sterling, also on Sept. 29 and 30.
Smith isn’t a stranger to pressure situations. Rifle coach Matt Rowe recalled a time when Smith knocked down some pressure-packed free throws when Rowe coached him in middle-school basketball games. Rowe is also quick to point out the competitive nature of Smith, especially when the first-year Rifle boys golf coach first considered putting Smith into the No. 1 slot in the team’s tournament lineup.
“It was right after our first qualifying (tournament),” Rowe said. “I went up to him and said ‘Hey Jake, how do you feel about being No. 1? Are you OK with that pressure, or would you feel more comfortable at No. 2?’”
“He looked straight at me and said, ‘Coach, I’d rather be No. 1 than No. 2,’” Rowe continued. “It kind of set the tone, because he was already ready to be a leader of the team as a freshman.”
Rowe also touched on how Smith has a tendency to be shy and reserved, which was the case when he played basketball for Rowe on a roster full of older players. This year’s typical Rifle golf lineup — which included the freshman Smith and juniors Wyatt Carter, Elliot Krebill and Kohl Keithly — was no different, but the Bears’ upperclassmen welcomed Smith with open arms.
That made a huge difference in Smith being able to let go and play well, and his finish at the regional tournament spurred a genuine celebration. Rowe said that after Smith locked up his state bid, Keithly jumped on Smith’s shoulders in celebration.
All of Smith’s teammates were at Rifle Creek Golf Course on Monday to practice right along with Smith, even though Smith is the only Rifle player going to Pueblo. There, Smith will face a course that’s longer than most of the courses he’s seen this season, where Walking Stick’s 7,100-plus yard layout will be longer than the typical 6,600-yard courses he’s seen this year. Smith’s short game is his strength, but he might wind up using more woods and hybrid clubs out of the tee box to accommodate for his strengths.
Still, Smith isn’t aiming for the top and maintains that he’ll be satisfied just hitting or beating his stroke average of 81 at one of the state’s biggest golf tournaments.
“I’m not worried about making goals right now,” Smith said. “I’m not going to put pressure on myself. I’m just worried about scoring well.”
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Thanksgiving seems to be ever-present here in the Roaring Fork Valley. I’m not talking turkey and gravy, I’m speaking to the gifts we receive constantly, throughout the seasons.