By Brian Eller - email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- With one swing of the putter, two sets of eyes began to well up.
As the ball sailed just past the hole, Cory Hammons, the man responsible for the shot, knew he had fallen, that the shot he needed to continue the playoff hadn't gone in.
His competitor, watching just a few feet away, knew Hammons' miss secured his victory. After four years of golf, Aubrey Wilkerson had captured a district title.
Following a tie in regulation, Hammons and Wilkerson entered a one-hole playoff, where Wilkerson bounced back from a disappointing approach shot to save par, a score good enough to upend Hammons and give Wilkerson the best score at the Northwestern District tournament at Shenandoah Valley Golf Club.
"That's one of the greatest up-and-downs I've ever had," Wilkerson said. "I figured I'd give it a chance, get it on the green and try to make a putt, and I just came through, I guess. It's my senior year and the last time you're going to play in the district tournament, and I didn't think I'd come out with the win today. I figured I'd be top three at least, but getting the chance to play in the playoff with Cory was a special day."
As the top golfers for Handley and Sherando, respectively, Wilkerson and Hammons had been paired in the same group for regulation, joining Skyline's Zack Henry and James Wood's Dylan McKee, a foursome that would likely produce the match's top score. And heading to the back nine, it looked as if that honor could go to any of them.
Then Wilkerson found his stride. After shooting a 39 on the front, the senior opened up the No. 10 hole with a three-wood, which landed just short of the green. After a chip up near the pin, Wilkerson putted in for a birdie, a hole he says was the springboard for his impressive finish.
"That kind of got my momentum going," Wilkerson said. "[After that] I ran off a couple of pars, hit a bogey or two, but really that birdie got me going. It got me saying, 'I'm back in it. I can do this.'"
Hammons, meanwhile, kept pace with Wilkerson shot for shot, as the two approached the 18th hole with a tie score.
On the final hole, Wilkerson actually was in position for the win, needing only to sink a 6-foot birdie. His shot missed, however, leaving Hammons and Wilkerson each with 77, forcing a playoff.
In the playoff, Wilkerson hit his tee shot first, driving it fairly straight and onto the green. Hammons followed with a similar drive, though his didn't land as close to the green.
"My drive was absolutely perfect," Wilkerson said. "That was exactly what I wanted to do with it. Then I pulled out my 54-degree wedge and basically it was a 100-yard shot and I was just trying to hit it all over the pin. I was going to go for broke at that point."
His shot didn't go as planned, however, sailing beyond the green, while Hammons' approach shot landed less than 20 feet from the pin. On his third shot, Wilkerson played aggressively, chipping onto the green and giving him a manageable putt for par. With Wilkerson still alive, Hammons felt the pressure, but could still win the playoff with a birdie from about 15 feet. His shot was short, however, opening the door for Wilkerson, whose putt fell into the hole, turning the pressure back on Hammons.
His putt needed to travel only a few feet, but Hammons had to sink it to continue the round. Hammons put too much on it, and could only watch as his shot sailed past the cup, giving Wilkerson the nod. As the two walked off the green, both fell victim to their emotions. Hammons tossed his ball away as coaches offered words of encouragement.
Wilkerson, meanwhile, knew the win meant he had won the individual district title and had to fight back tears of joy.
"It's kind of been my mentality all year," he said. "About a month ago, I talked about my round with my dad and he was just helping me mentally, saying, 'Never quit on the hole, never give up,' and I knew [Cory] had a pretty lengthy putt and I could give myself a chance to make a [putt], and unfortunately he three-putted. That's not the way you always want to win, but I pulled it out."
Despite the loss, it wasn't all bad news for Hammons. As a team, Sherando dominated the tournament, winning with a score of 325 to capture both the regular-season title and district-tournament title. Millbrook pulled off a minor upset, too, finishing in second place with a score of 338, awarding them a trip to the regional tournament.
"We had a good week of practice and we knew what was going to be thrown at us out here," Millbrook coach Russ Korn said. "We had a good performance last week and that gave us some confidence, and our guys have really improved the past few weeks."
With Sherando and Millbrook advancing, the top six individual scores from the other schools also moved on. Those honors went to Wilkerson, who won with a 77; teammate Kyle Stickley; Henry from Skyline; and McKee, Kyle Hevner and Will Holmes from James Wood. Holmes also won a playoff to secure his spot at regionals, besting Skyline's Joe Dawkins in a one-hole round. Henry was named Northwestern District Player of the Year, while Coach of the Year went to Sherando's Robert Wright.