Halifax County High School freshman JD Cunningham has been busy since the beginning of 2020 competing on the Hurricane Junior Golf Tour (HJGT) while staying at the Junior Players Golf Academy (JPGA) and improving his golf game. The practice recently paid off when Cunningham won first-place in the Greensboro Jr. Open at the Greensboro National Golf Course October 17-18. Cunningham shot 75-82 for a weekend score of 157 and won the tournament by eight strokes.
Cunningham has competed in seven events this year on the HJGT that took place in Hilton Head, South Carolina where he is staying at the JPGA as well as tournaments in Florida and North Carolina. With his win at the Greensboro Jr. Open Cunningham has now qualified for the Tournament of Champions Tournament that will be held Dec. 5-6 in Winter Garden, Florida at the Orange County National Golf Club. The tournament is hosted by the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) and will feature golfers from across the United States.
Golfers do not have to qualify to be a part of the HJGT, but in order for a golfer to get to elite tournaments that are invite only, they have to earn points in their HJGT tournaments to improve their rankings.
“I feel excited. I have never experienced that before, it is going to be exciting to see what will happen because there are going to be kids from all over the United States,” Cunningham said about going to the Tournament of Champions in December.
Cunningham plays in the Will Smith division that is for boys 14-15 years old and each tournament with the HJGT features around 10 golfers, but there are 439 golfers around the country in his division. With his win in Greensboro, Cunningham is now ranked 29th in the country out of the 439 golfers in the division.
His first event on the HJGT was back in early January at the Bluffton Junior Open where he finished in fifth place. For Cunningham, competing in the tournaments at first was quite intimidating.
“It was real hard because at the Hurricane events they call your name and stuff at the beginning of the events,” Cunningham said. In one of his earlier tournaments on the tour Cunningham finished in last place and began to question if he belonged, but he decided to use that finish as a learning experience going forward.
“I felt that even though I came in dead last I learned more than if I had come in first, and I liked the fact that I learned a lot from it,” he said.
He admitted that he was scared in those first couple of tournaments and really didn’t know what was happening, but as he got more comfortable with the format and other things going on, he began to settle down and play the golf he knew he could play.
“I just come out there to have fun and focus on playing it smart,” Cunningham said about playing his brand of golf. “I don’t focus on my golf swing too much because if I focus on that it messes me up,” he added.
One big difference in the HJGT and playing in local tournaments or middle school matches is that he plays 36 holes of golf over a weekend tournament. That’s 18 holes each day compared to many one-day nine-hole tournaments and matches locally. He also had to get used to the length of the courses compared to others he has played as well as the windy conditions that come with playing on beach courses.
After the first day of the Greensboro Jr. Open, Cunningham held an eight-stroke lead, which is the same margin of victory he held after the final day of the tournament. When asked about how he handles a lead like that after one day, and having to come back and play 18 more holes of golf, Cunningham says that he tries not to pay attention to the score at all while he is on the course.
“I don’t look at my score. Even though I have to put it in during the match I don’t count it in my head or anything because I feel like if I look at the scorecard I will have too many goals that I have to set up,” he said. “I remember in one tournament I was in first place the first day and I looked at the scorecard and I messed it up the second day,” he added.
Cunningham has aspirations to play Division 1 college golf in the future and wants to go to either Duke or Wake Forest. If Cunningham continues to improve and gets invited to other elite amateur tournaments a win in one of those tournaments will get him much closer to his dream of playing Division 1 golf.
Next up on the schedule for Cunningham is the Hilton Head Junior Classic at Palmetto Dunes Golf Club on Nov. 7-8.