By Fred Behringer

David Sanders, a 20-year-old golfer from Laurel Creek Country Club, displayed maturity far beyond his years in winning the first New Jersey state competition he entered — the 110th NJSGA Amateur Championship contested June 7-9th at Trump National Golf Club–Bedminster.

Sanders used a birdie run during the second nine of the final round to pull away from the field in the 72-hole tournament played on Trump National’s New Course. His 70 for the concluding 18 holes tied Jake Goldenring of Brooklake for the low afternoon round and brought his total to 69-74-71-70—284, one stroke lower than Benjamin Smith, who led Sanders by one stroke after the morning round. The two leaders played as a twosome all day in an atmosphere much like match play.

Sanders built a three-stroke lead over Smith with two holes to play before a bogey on the 17th hole set up a chance for Smith to capitalize. But the 24-year-old golfer from Little Mill failed to sink a birdie putt on 18 that could have resulted in a two-shot swing. Thus Sanders’ bogey at the end did not deny him the Edwin M. Wild Championship trophy.

Putting separated Sanders from a group of close contenders. “My short game saved me this week,” he said. “I putted phenomenally. I missed maybe two five-footers all week. I put everything within tap-in range. I had 18 or 19 birdies.”

Not only had Sanders not played in the Amateur previously, but he had never played the Trump course before the first round of the tournament. Yet he was not lacking in confidence. ”I was expecting to win, to be honest with you,” he said. “I was playing good. I’ve been putting unbelievably. I knew this was a links-style golf course, and I traditionally do well on links-style golf courses.”

Clutch par-saving putts on the third and fifth holes kept Sanders in the hunt as the leaderboard became crowded. “I went to the back nine thinking I had played really good on the back all week,” he said, “so I knew I was going to be fine.”

Mike Hyland, Smith’s club-mate from Little Mill, moved into a tie for the lead with a 30-foot eagle putt at the 500-yard, par-5 eighth hole. “When I made the putt,” Hyland recalled, “I thought the tournament was mine.” But he came a cropper at another par 5, the 520-yard 15th, with a double bogey. “On 15,” he said, “I hit an aggressive tee shot, which you can’t do, and blocked it way right. It was a roller coaster round. I was in it and then I wasn’t in it.” Hyland and Pat Wilson of Panther Valley, runner-up in the 2010 NJSGA Amateur, tied for third at 288, three strokes behind Smith, who scored 73-70-70-72—285. Wilson’s triple bogey on the 156-yard 14th ruined his chances.

Matthew Finger of Darlington and Mike Meisenzahl, another standout from Little Mill, threatened most of the day and tied for fifth at 289, a stroke better than Goldenring and 2008 Mid-Amateur champion Mike Stamberger of Spring Lake.

“Little Mill has a great team,” Hyland remarked. “The course is really, really tight, and you have to hit it straight. If you can play at Little Mill, you can play anywhere.”

While this Amateur marked Sanders’ debut in the NJSGA winner’s circle, he is not unaccustomed to championship trophies. He started in the game at age 2, swinging a plastic club around the house and entering tournaments by the time he was 4. He scored his first victory against 8- and 9-year-olds and by age 10 had won more than 100 events.

At 13, he began to play on the International Junior Golf Tour, where he won a tour championship and twice became Player of the Year. He spent a year and a half at that tour’s golf academy in South Carolina, where he practiced regularly with Morgan Hoffmann, the Oklahoma State star from Arcola Country Club. Sanders also played in two U.S. Junior Amateurs, one U.S. Amateur and two U.S. Open sectional qualifiers. He will receive an associate degree from Burlington County Community College this summer and then try the PGA Tour Qualifying School. “Golf,” Sanders admitted, “has been my whole life.”

While he may have been unheralded in NJSGA circles, there was a solid foundation for his state Amateur title.

In a statement welcoming the Amateur to Trump National–Bedminster, Donald Trump thanked the NJSGA “for showcasing our club for the pre-eminent amateur championship in the state.” The club and course were up to the challenge.

The four-year-old New Course, designed by Tom Fazio II, is a big test: big fairways, big bunkers, big patches of tall fescue with water in play on about half the holes. The fairways are wide enough to keep all but truly wayward shots in play.

A mild breeze gave players some relief from the heat wave that baked the course, which was in excellent condition. Still, there were many changes of soaked shirts between the morning and afternoon rounds on the final day. The championship ended just before a wave of severe thunderstorms hit the region.

Dr. Albert Kuchler Jr., tournament co-chairman with Evan Broadbelt and Paul Coulter for the NJSGA, praised Trump National–Bedminster’s leadership for their handling of the championship: David Schutzenhofer, general manager; Mickie Gallagher III, director of golf; Tom Pepe, director of grounds; Pavel Melichar, food and beverage director; and Donald Trump himself.

Said Kuchler of the Amateur competitors, “There was certainly a lot of grit and determination and perseverance out there today.”

The 111th NJSGA Amateur Championship will return next year to Baltusrol Golf Club, where it has been held seven times dating back to 1903.

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