Leader Blues

Friday, June 19, 2009

SPORTS >> Zimmerman hangs on for match play crown

Leader sports editor

Call it the Zimmerman Slam if you want.

Sylvan Hills’ Nick Zimmerman currently owns both the junior match play and stroke play titles after holding on for a 2-and-1 win over Conway’s Ethan King on Thursday morning at the ASGA Junior Match Play Championship at Foxwood Country Club.

“It was my home course and I was hitting it good enough,” Zimmerman said of his chances of winning the 64-player field when it started on Monday. “My short game is really what won me the tournament.”

The Sylvan Hills alum dropped in a clinching 15-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole after King had staged a furious comeback and closed a 4-down deficit to a mere 1-down with two holes to play.

Zimmerman adds Thursday’s match play championship to his ASGA stroke play crown from last July, when he cruised to a 12-shot victory at Pine Bluff.

It’s as close as Zimmerman can come to a slam in the two events as he turns 18 on Wednesday and will be too old to defend his stroke play championship next month.

Along about the 10th hole on Thursday, that Zimmerman Slam was beginning to look like a slam dunk. After falling one down to King, who will be a senior at Conway High School, Zimmerman won holes 6 through 10 to take a commanding 4-up lead heading into the 11th hole. But Zimmerman left the door open for King when he missed a six-foot putt that would have increased his lead to 5-up with just seven holes remaining.

King burst through the door by making par on the 12th hole, which was good enough to narrow the lead to 3 after Zimmerman plunked his second shot into the lake.

“I think that second shot on 12 is what let him back into it,” Zimmerman said. “I had a terrible lie.”

Zimmerman made a good chip on 13 to draw a halve on the hole and maintain his 3-up lead, but King stuck it stiff on the par-3 14th and Zimmerman conceded the birdie putt to drop to a 2-up lead.

Things got even dicier when Zimmerman hooked his approach out of bounds on 15 and the once-comfortable lead was down to a precarious one hole, still with three to play.

It appeared Zimmerman had steered the ship back on course when he hit a good drive on 16, then knocked his approach to four feet. King, meanwhile, was forced to hit a knockdown shot from under the trees and came up short of the green.

But King made a nice up and down for par and Zimmerman ran his birdie putt well past the hole and faced a five-foot comeback to try to hold on to his 1-up lead.

“I thought I’d hit (the birdie putt) soft enough not to have a comebacker, but it just kept going,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman curled the comeback putt into the left edge to maintain a 1-up lead as the two players headed to the 17th tee.

“I knew he was closing the gap big time,” Zimmerman said. “The only thought that kept going through my head was that I was still up with two holes to go so it was my tournament to win. Ethan played really good, though. He never gave up.”

King striped his drive on 17, while Zimmerman sprayed a wild shot beyond the trees lining the right side of the fairway. The ball missed the trees and ended up in the 16th fairway, leaving him about 100 yards over a tall stand of trees. Zimmerman’s approach hit the bank to the right of the green and released onto the front edge about 15 feet below the hole.

“It was a basic 56 (degree wedge),” Zimmerman said of the shot. “The trees didn’t bother me at all. I just hit a good shot, I guess.”

King followed with an approach right at the flag, but it released up the hill and left him about 20 feet for birdie. His putt came up short, leaving Zimmerman with a putt for the win. It was on line the whole way, then died into the front of the cup.

“That putt was dead straight,” he said. “You couldn’t have asked for an easier shot.”

Zimmerman, who led after two holes on Thursday, trailed only twice in the match after making bogeys on 3 and 4. He drew even when King bogeyed the par-3 6th and took the lead for good on 8. His drive on the 307-yard par four finished right of the green about 20 yards from the flag and his wedge stopped five feet from the cup. He made the birdie, then birdied 8 to go 2-up. That was the second of five straight winning holes for Zimmerman, who surged to a 4-up lead when King bogeyed No. 10.

After opening with an 8-and-7 win in the first round, Zimmerman survived several narrow matches along the way to the title, including a 1-up win over Cabot’s Hunter Smith in the quarterfinals and a 3-and-2 win over Drew Comer in the semis, when he chipped in twice on the front nine.

Cabot’s Colby Benton came up short in his bid to win a third straight junior tournament. Benton won the Bruce Jenkins Memorial and the Burns Park Stroke Play last week. Benton, whose brother Nicklaus won this event the past two years, fell 2-and-1 to Lance Hulce in the semifinals on Wednesday.

Zimmerman will play golf at UALR next year.

ASGA executive director Jay Fox announced at the trophy presentation ceremony that Foxwood, which has hosted the event the past three years, will continue hosting it for at least the next two summers.