KESWICK — Radford University’s Peter Gasperini, fresh off “running into a buzzsaw” in the semifinals of the 106th Virginia State Golf Association Amateur Championship, could only marvel at the state of junior golf in the commonwealth.
“I mean, these kids can play,” he said.
Friday’s championship match was the domain of youth, and Gasperini is 100 percent right. Teenagers Michael Brennan of Leesburg and Christopher Zhang of Blacksburg each won twice on Thursday on another steamy day at Keswick Golf Club, setting up an all-junior 36-hole championship match on Friday.
Brennan (River Creek Club) made nine birdies in 16 holes in defeating South Boston’s Gasperini 4 and 2 in the semifinals. Gasperini was the only college player left after the morning session, where three juniors advanced to the semifinals. Zhang (Blacksburg CC) ousted another strong junior player, Alexandria’s Jimmy Taylor, 3 and 2 in the other semifinal match.
Brennan, a 17-year-old rising senior at Tuscarora High School who is bound for Wake Forest after his prep career is complete, booted stroke-play medalist Connor Messick (International CC) in the quarterfinals 5 and 4. Brennan took advantage of Messick’s slow start and built a 4-up lead through six holes without making a birdie. He got going on the back nine of that match with three birdies and continued his run in the afternoon.
His semifinal match with Gasperini was tied through five holes, but Brennan jumped ahead by making five straight birdies, a burst that built him a 4-up lead through 10 holes.
“Consistency, I think, is the key out here, and just in match play in general,” Brennan said. “You’ve just got to wear them down. Fairways and greens, wear them out that way. Make them think that you’re not going to mess up. When they start thinking that way, then they’re in trouble. Because they start to push and, it’s just all downhill from there. You just try to get in their head and let them know you’re not going to mess up.”
Gasperini made a game attempt at rallying, sinking a birdie putt on 13 to cut the lead to 3 up. But a costly bogey on 14 left Brennan 4 up with four to play, and Brennan closed out the match—fittingly—with a birdie on 16.
“Well, he had nine birdies in 16 holes, so that’ll do it to someone,” Gasperini said. “If I’m going to go out, I want to go out like that. I gave it everything I had this week, but I just came up a little short. At some point, I’ve got to win something, though. I’m getting close with my game.”
Big picture, Gasperini said he took nothing but positives from the fact that he’s reached the Amateur semifinals in each of the last two years. He’ll tee it up at the Eastern Amateur in Portsmouth next week and the Delta Dental State Open of Virginia in July, seeking that elusive victory.
“It’s definitely heading in the right direction,” he said. “I’m becoming a more and more solid player, and I can see that even when I’m not necessarily winning. I can see the results getting a lot better. It’s close.”
Like Brennan, Zhang jumped on his quarterfinal opponent early, building a 5-up lead through seven holes against Glen Allen’s Cameron Moore, a rising Virginia Tech sophomore. He closed that match out on 15, winning 4 and 3. He found himself in a tougher situation against Taylor (Belle Haven CC) in the afternoon.
Taylor led 1 up through 11 holes, but Zhang made a birdie on 12 and won the next three holes to put a stranglehold on the match. Zhang hadn’t played much match play before this week, but he sure seemed to take a liking the format. He only had to go past the 16th hole once in four matches—a 1-up win in the round of 16 against Jordan Utley.
“Essentially, it’s the same as stroke play, but every once in a while, you have to change your strategy up,” Zhang said. “Really, the mentality, it’s mostly the same, I think. But it’s fun and different.”
Taylor, who is set to start his college career at William and Mary later this summer, reached the championship match of the VSGA Junior Match Play Championship and the semifinals of the VSGA Amateur, a heady couple of weeks for a player whose game is definitely trending upward.
“Hopefully, I can keep playing well,” said Taylor, who has the Eastern Am, the State Open and the VSGA Junior Stroke Play coming up on his calendar. “I’ll probably rest up the next few days, and hopefully I can keep this up for the rest of the summer.”