EAST LIVERPOOL-The best golfers are often the ones who combine their natural talents with diligent practice habits and a persistent attitude. East Liverpool senior Blake Prince is one such example. For the past six years, he has committed himself to becoming a better golfer, and now he is reaping the rewards of his hard work.
After helping the Potters to their first-ever state tournament appearance in the fall, Prince has spent the last month dominating the Northern Ohio PGA Junior Tour, racking up six wins and a third-place finish. As good as that stretch was, however, it is a far cry from the experience Prince will have this weekend when he competes in the 38th Junior PGA Championship at Trump National Golf Club in Potomac Falls, Virginia.
Prince is one of 62 high school boys from across the country to qualify for the tournament. The format is four rounds of stroke play with the field cut to 30 after round three. Previous winners of the Jr. PGA include Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. The keynote speaker at this year's welcome reception will be Donald Trump.
"I know it's going to be tough, but I'm very excited," Prince said. "I definitely expect to play well and make the cut."
Prince began playing golf in middle school and displayed a natural ability from the outset, shooting rounds in the 80s before long. He became hooked by the early success, and around age 12 began serious work on his game.
"I was always pretty good at golf when I was younger and had a lot of fun with it," Prince said. "It just became something I really wanted to get better at."
Getting better required a disciplined practice regimen. Every day during the summer, Prince would log eight hours a day at Beaver Creek Meadows Golf Course. He would begin the morning hitting balls on the driving range, play the course in the afternoon and wrap things up in the evening by returning to the range to hit more balls. For many, the routine would have grown monotonous, but for Prince, it never felt like work.
"Golf has always been fun for me, whether playing or practicing," Prince said. "I usually always had friends to practice with, which made it better."
Course owner Mark Weber-seeing how serious Prince was about the game-routinely let him play the course at a reduced rate.
"Mark was a big help early, letting me play as much as he did was huge," Prince said.
The hours of repetition gave Prince a solid, dependable swing. He made up for his small size and relative lack of distance off the tee with an approach built foremost on accuracy.
"I had never seen Blake play before his freshman year, but I knew about him from people in the area," coach Ben Wright said. "I knew he was a really accurate hitter. Unlike a lot of young players, he didn't spray the ball all over the place."
By the time Prince arrived in high school, he had blossomed into someone ready to step in right away and help lead the East Liverpool golf team. From day one, he was slotted as the number-two player behind senior Jason Dickey. At the end of the year, both missed qualifying for the state tournament by one shot.
"I wasn't really thinking about trying to make state as a freshman," Prince said. "I hadn't really played too much competition before high school, I was just concentrating on having fun and trying to play my best."
Prince continued working on his game, playing the Northern Ohio Tour during the summer (and winning back-to-back points titles) while practicing indoors at Robert Morris University during the winter. However, he missed state by one shot again as a sophomore. Last fall it all came together. Prince was named Eastern District Player of the Year and finally led the Potters to Columbus, where they finished sixth.
"The was a lot of disappointment in missing state in both my freshman and sophomore years. It definitely gave me the motivation to get there my junior year." Prince said.
This summer has been Prince's best by far. In addition to his six wins on the Northern Ohio Tour, he also collected a win and two top tens on the Golf Week Jr. Tour. Everything culminated with sectional qualifying for the Jr. PGA Championship June 24-25 at Shady Hollow CC in Massillon.
Fifty-six golfers qualified for the 36-hole stroke play event, with only the winner moving on to the Jr. PGA. An opening round 73 left Prince in a three-way tie for first heading into the final day. Prince had made it to sectionals the year before only to shoot himself out of contention with a first round 82. He was determined to make this time different.
"Making the Jr. PGA was a goal I had all summer," Prince said. "I was disappointed with how I played the year before. I knew I just had to play one more day of solid golf."
With four holes to go in the final round, and Prince clinging to a one-stroke lead, the swing he spent so many hours honing came through under pressure. Prince calmly closed his round of 72 with four routine pars while his opponent missed a 3-foot birdie putt at the 17th hole that would've tied the score.
"I felt confident down the stretch," Prince said. "All the years of practicing and playing in competition really helped. I felt pure excitement coming off the 18th hole knowing I had won."
The accomplishment did come with a caveat, however. The Jr. PGA is being held the same weekend as the Northern Ohio PGA Championship, meaning Prince will have to give up a potential shot at a third straight points title. He said the decision was an easy one.
"It's too bad not to play the Tour Championship, but no question, the Jr. PGA is a huge deal," Prince said. "There was never any doubt what I was going to do."
Following the tournament, Prince will have little time to rest. The Potters begin their season on Aug. 8th, with expectations for another trip to the state tournament. Then there is the matter of visiting potential colleges, with trips to Oakland (Mich.), Dayton, and Cleveland State on the horizon. For his part, Prince is trying not to get caught up in the whirlwind.
"I'm just trying to take it day by day," Prince said. "My main focus is on my upcoming senior year. We have a chance to be really good as a team and I'm ready to play well and help us win."