By ROCKY STANLEY
ASHLAND On the 30th anniversary of the Natural Resource Partners Bluegrass Junior, Haylee Harford produced one of the classic shots in tournament history.
The defending champion found herself in dire straits lining up a 50-foot putt on No. 18 at Bellefonte Country Club, her eight-shot lead after 13 holes Friday down to one.
Harford hit her approach shot over the 18th green and under a tree. Her subsequent chip shot, from bare ground, came up over the bank and rolled all the way to the opposite fringe.
Undaunted, the feisty 16-year-old from Leavittsburg, Ohio, knocked in the mammoth putt to save par and give her a wire-to-wire victory in the American Junior Golf Association tournament.
As the ball disappeared into the cup, below the flagstick, Harford took a couple of running steps toward the hole and raised her hand to her mouth.
Asked to describe what just happened, an emotional Harford responded, “I can’t.”
How about amazing?
“Definitely, I would call it that,” she said. “The Lord really blessed me with that last shot. I remember one of the girls asking if I wanted the pin in or out. I wasn’t thinking of making it. I just wanted to get it close and make nothing worse than bogey.”
Harford finished the three-day event at 218, one shot better than Katie Page of Louisville.
Page, who also parred the final hole, kept pressure on the leader by making a long par putt from just off the green on No. 17. But Harford trumped her on the final hole.
“I’ve never made that big of a putt for that result,” Harford said. “Nothing like that.”
Adding to the drama down the stretch, their group which also included Paintsville’s Ale Walker, received a red-card warning for slow play midway through the round. Aware that the AJGA is a stickler regarding pace of play, the trio made an effort to speed things up.
Harford admitted to being a little bit worried, however.
“I didn’t know how close we were to getting a penalty,” she said. “It was just nerve-racking either way. Golf’s a hard game. You have to stay in it mentally.”
Harford was Ohio’s Division II state champion as a freshman. She made a verbal commitment to Furman but still has two years of high school remaining.
For now, she’s numb from the emotional win after surviving a quad-bogey eight on the 14th hole. The misadventure started when Harford hit her tee shot far right into water.
“My driver is usually straight,” she said. “I pushed it so bad. I was hoping the ball was in play. It wasn’t.”
Walker, playing in her final NRP Bluegrass Junior, shot 2-over 72 to finish in third place — two shots behind Harford.
“Like I’ve said before, this is the favorite event on my schedule,” Walker said. “I’m sad this is my last time. Honestly, I wish the AJGA had these for college students.”
Her career at University of Kentucky begins this fall. UK coach Golda Borst was at BCC for all three rounds to follow Walker and another Kentucky signee, Anna Hack of Murray. Hack tied for 14th.
Walker received the tournament’s Cameron Weis Sportsmanship Award from Nick Carter, president and chief operating officer of Natural Resource Partners.
“It was special,” said Walker, who was among 20 finalists for the USGA-AJGA Presidents’ Leadership Award.
The boys’ division also was decided by a single shot. Patrick Martin of Birmingham, Ala., shot par in the final round for a 207 total to hold off strong-closing Nabeel Khan (Westerville, Ohio) and Cooper Musselman (Louisville).
Martin, 16, eagled No. 1 and turned in another solid round to win in his first open AJGA event.
“It means a lot,” he said. “This makes it a lot easier for the rest of the year to get into tournaments.”
Martin was accompanied at the NRP Bluegrass Junior by his mother.
“We took a chance in signing up for it,” Patrick said. “I really enjoyed my time here. I will try to come back.”
After encountering a “stressful” patch on holes 8-11, including two bogeys, he got back on track. A birdie down the stretch especially provided a boost.
“Once I birdied No. 14, the nerves were gone and I was ready to finish up,” Martin said.
Khan took advantage of excellent conditions to post Friday’s low round — 66 — and finish runner-up. Musselman’s 67 in the final round lifted him into third place, two shots behind Martin.
Grayson’s Ryan Gillum, tied for second entering Friday, shot 74 and finished in a tie for eighth. The performance exceeded his expectations coming into the tournament, which began with a boys’ field of 108 players from more than 20 states.
“It gives me confidence going into other tournaments this summer and eventually going into the next season of high school golf,” Gillum said. “I feel like I competed well against some of the top boys out there.”
Gillum shot 67 in the opening round, followed by a 72 on Thursday.
“It was a little bit of a struggle today,” he said. “I wasn’t hitting the ball as well. I was not getting up and down.”
Sinking a long birdie putt on No. 10 made him feel better.
“I thought I had momentum going my way, even thought I was five (shots) down,” Gillum said. “Hats off to Patrick. He played a great tournament.”
Wheelersburg’s Mitchell McFarland matched par for the second consecutive day to tie for 21st at 217. Ashland’s Nick Blankenship tied for 52nd.
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2671.