Rory Sabbatini has nothing on Zak Griffiths when it comes to emerging victorious in the International Junior Masters, a prestigious golf tournament featuring a strong field of players from both North and South America.
Sabbatini, a PGA regular and 34th-ranked player in the world, proclaimed it a “great honour” to win the 1993 Junior Masters, and Griffiths was equally grateful when he defeated Brendan Leonard of Cambridge, Ont., two-and-one in the match-play final at East Aurora, N.Y., on Friday.
“That was definitely one of the bigger events I’ve played in and certainly a big win. Hopefully I can win a few more AJGA (American Junior Golf Association) events before I graduate (high school),” the 16-year-old Red Deer native said on Monday from Regina, where he’ll compete in the CN Future Links Prairie Championship just south of the city today to Thursday.
Griffiths, who will enter Grade 11 in the fall, has taken his schooling online — through St. Gabriel Cyber School — and picked up some option classes through Notre Dame during the past two winters while he and his family have lived in the United States. The escape from the harsh Central Alberta winter climate has allowed him to continue to work at his game, and the results are starting to show.
“It’s been a big advantage for me,” said Griffiths, who last winter called Palm Springs, Calif., and Hawaii — for one month — home. “A lot of tournaments are going on at that time down there and I get to play in quite a few of them. I don’t have that long break where I can’t play.”
In stroke play over the first two days of the Junior Masters, Griffiths recorded rounds of 70-74 and finished second at 3-over 145, five strokes behind stroke play winner Daniel Zuluaga of Columbia. He then opened the championship flight match play with a win over David Cellura of Penfield, N.Y., on the 19th hole, and followed with a 1-up victory over Mexican Patrick Sanchiez Mitchell.
From there, the Red Deer golfer defeated fellow Albertan Ryan Werre of Redcliff 3-and-2, and knocked off Daniel De La Garza of Mexico 1-up in a semifinal that was delayed several times due to rain. Clearly, the eventual champion wasn’t bothered by any of the delays.
“It seemed like we were in and out of the clubhouse every half hour, but it was the same for everyone on the course,” he said.
Griffiths’ short game was key to winning at East Aurora, but his iron play was also impressive. On the par-4, 403-yard 11th hole, he hit to within inches of the hole with his 135-yard approach and drained the short putt for birdie and a one-hole lead that he never relinquished.
“I’m putting really well right now and my ball striking is very good. I made some six-foot birdie putts that probably won the tournament for me,” he said. “I’m probably playing at the top of my game right now, but I have to keep progressing and getting better.”
Following the Regina event, Griffiths will fly to Toronto for the North American Cup, will return to Alberta for the provincial juniors July 14-17 at Grande Prairie and then scout out a suitable location south of the border in an attempt to qualify for the U.S. Amateur in August.
A former winner on the McLennan Ross Sun Junior Tour and a fourth-place finisher in the circuit’s championship event last year at Wolf Creek, Griffiths is toying with the idea of entering one or more of the provincial tour events if his summer schedule allows.
“I might come back for couple of McLennan Ross (tournaments),” said Griffiths. “I’d like to see Dunc (McLennan Ross Sun Junior Tour executive director Mills). He always supported me through my younger junior years.”