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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Windham’s McKee edges Nashua’s Gillis for NHGA Jr. title in three playoff holes

SALEM – It took 21 holes to finish, and James McKee was happy with all but two of them. The 15-year-old Windham High School and Windham Country Club member bogeyed the sixth and 16th holes, but managed to overcome those blips on his way to winning the 2014 New Hampshire Golf Association Junior Championship title in three playoff holes at Campbell’s Scottish Highlands on Wednesday.

The win over Souhegan Woods Golf Club 15-year-old Brandon Gillis, of Nashua, is McKee’s first tournament championship. It didn’t come easy. ...

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SALEM – It took 21 holes to finish, and James McKee was happy with all but two of them. The 15-year-old Windham High School and Windham Country Club member bogeyed the sixth and 16th holes, but managed to overcome those blips on his way to winning the 2014 New Hampshire Golf Association Junior Championship title in three playoff holes at Campbell’s Scottish Highlands on Wednesday.

The win over Souhegan Woods Golf Club 15-year-old Brandon Gillis, of Nashua, is McKee’s first tournament championship. It didn’t come easy.

Of the first nine holes, the duo halved all but two. McKee birdied the fourth hole for a 1-up advantage, which disappeared two holes later when he bogeyed six and Gillis shot par. The next six holes, 10-15, were halved and the duo traded wins on 16 (Gillis) and 17 (McKee).

“I knew it was going to be tight going into the first hole today,” McKee said. “We didn’t make a lot of mistakes off the tee this morning. It was all about the putting. It all came down to the putter.”

All square through 17 holes, both golfers had eagle attempts on 18, with McKee getting within a foot of the cup and Gillis shooting past it by about 6 feet. With the pressure squarely on his shoulders, Gillis drained his birdie putt and forced a playoff.

“Birdie was my game plan the whole time on 18,” Gillis said, “but when I stepped over the putt it was basically do or die and I just went for it and hit the right putt.

“When I made the putt on 18, that was probably the best putt all day, but when he birdied on 17 - I mean I can’t ask for a better way to lose than to lose to a birdie.”

That was on the 21st hole of the match off the 17th tee.

McKee teed off with his 3 Iron, which he got comfortable using on the back nine all week, and set himself up with an 86-yard wedge shot to the green. Having overshot the first time on 17 and coming up short the second time while playing their 19th hole, McKee found his perfect shot to get within 7 feet of the cup.

He read the break right to left and sank the downhill putt for the win.

“It felt like a 20-footer, but it was probably 6 to 7,” McKee said “I missed putts by inches on the previous holes. I knew if I read this one right, I knew the line and give it the right pace it would go in.”

It did go in, and McKee gave a quick fist pump to acknowledge the hard-fought victory over Gillis. A match both competitors jokingly said they were thinking was going to go another 18.

It didn’t, and McKee, who admittedly played a conservative game this week, closed out with his third birdie of the day (holes four, eight, 21).

“That’s sort of what I did in the first two matches of the Championship Flight,” McKee said. “I just waited for the kid to make a mistake. Today, Brandon didn’t make any mistakes. There was nothing wrong with his game today. It just so happened that I had a birdie putt and he just slid his right by.”

The last NHGA Junior Championship to go into playoffs was 2011, as Atkinson Resort and Country Club’s Joe Leavitt beat Windham Country Club’s Nick Fairweather in 19 holes. Leavitt was also on the losing end of a playoff in the 2009 final, falling to Bedford’s Jake Nutter in 20 holes.

McKee now knows how those previous three golfers felt. Especially facing off against Gillis, who won the Division I high school tournament title in the fall.

“It was an exhausting last couple of holes,” McKee said.

“He didn’t give in. That was pretty impressive to see. Even when the pressure’s put on, he made some clutch putts down the stretch.”

It was just as tiring and stressful for Gillis.

“I thought I played great, better than all the other matches I played,” Gillis said. “James just played amazing. It was a great match all the way. I’m really surprised at the way we played today considering how many holes we played before.”

In the end it all came down to that final hole, and McKee had just enough in the tank to finish it off.