Two vacant lots, a patient neighbor and a less-traveled street would one day pave the way for South Johnston’s first-ever league golf championship.
When Patrick Stephenson was a youngster, he lived in a house on a quiet area of Four Oaks with unused land on both sides. So when a neighbor across the way offered his front yard as a tee-off area, Stephenson suddenly had his own personal practice range, complete with a makeshift bunker and homemade flag.
“That’s how I learned how to play,” Stephenson said. “I was able to work on all kinds of wedge shots and eventually hit it about 150 yards. I only hit our house one time.”
Stephenson has been flag hunting ever since, including a 65 at Monday’s finale of the Two Rivers 3A Conference boys golf season at Reedy Creek Golf Course. Stephenson, an East Carolina University signee and the 2015 N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A state runner-up, celebrated Senior Day in style by matching his best-ever competitive round, which came at last year’s state event.
Thanks to the heroics of Stephenson and his teammates, the Trojans accepted the team trophy during a post-match ceremony – the only time South Johnston has claimed a conference golf crown in the 46-year history of the school.
“We’ve had all of the talent the past few years to do this, but things just lined up this year,” said South Johnston coach Daniel Benson, who is in his 13th season with the program. “We had a good shot four years ago and bobbled the ball a bit at the end. I was hoping this year would be the one.”
The Trojans claimed four of the six league events this spring, including the last three. Stephenson was the runaway Two Rivers 3A Most Valuable Player for the fourth consecutive campaign, while Brooks Skinner, another senior, was an all-conference pick.
“When Patrick and Brooks do well, we usually win,” Benson said. “But at some point, everybody on the team has contributed during a match.”
But nobody has impacted the standings like Stephenson, who will look for his second 3A East Regional individual championship next Monday when the Trojans host the event at Reedy Creek.
“South Johnston doesn’t see golfers like Patrick Stephenson very often,” Benson said.
And Reedy Creek doesn’t serve as a witness to many rounds like the one Stephenson carded on Monday.
The lefty, who was disappointed with his performance at a non-league tournament last weekend, birdied his first hole and kept rolling from there. Stephenson bogeyed just one hole while delivering one eagle and six birdies.
On the par-5 7th hole, Stephenson found himself stuck behind two trees up the right side of the fairway after his drive. With a narrow passage to work with between the trunks, Stephenson lined a laser through the opening and hooked the ball back onto the green – and just 20 feet from the hole. Two putts later, Stephenson had registered yet another birdie.
“I’ve actually been kind of streaky lately,” Stephenson said. “I’ve been driving the ball well, but my irons have been streaky. I just kind of made it work today because I made a lot of putts.”
Stephenson’s short game has become legendary in Johnston County and beyond. He attributes much of that specialty to his boyhood yard setup, which allowed him to concentrate on executing close-in shots.
Even though he didn’t officially hire a coach until he was in middle school, Stephenson’s game was advanced at a young age, thanks in part to assistance from his father.
When he was in second grade, Stephenson was asked by a teacher to draw a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up. The piece of paper, featuring a stick-figure person leaning over a golf bag, is still on display in the kitchen of the Stephenson family home.
“Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a pro golfer,” Stephenson said. “I still have to get a lot better, but I guess I’m closer to it now than before.”
In defending his regional crown, Stephenson will have the luxury of competing Monday at Reedy Creek, where he also works as a cart wrangler in his spare time. And if the Trojans can finish in the top three in the team standings, South Johnston can add to its historic campaign by taking part as a team – for the first time – at the NCHSAA 3A championships.
“You can’t deny that we will have a home-course advantage,” Benson said. “We know the course; we play it all of the time.”
Triton, Corinth Holders and Cleveland entered the last match tied for second place in the league’s points-based standings, with only two regional berths available. Triton earned its spot with a second-place finish, but the Pirates and Rams tied for third – and had to play a nine-hole playoff match on Tuesday.
The Pirates prevailed.
Cleveland’s Patrick Schweitz and Bryson Peter earned individual regional bids as did Smithfield-Selma’s Ethan Faulconer and Tyson Pace of Western Harnett.
“It’s been this way all year,” Corinth Holders coach Jeff Parker said of the tight finish. “So I didn’t expect anything different.”
Despite Stephenson’s domination of the conference (a drop total of 342 strokes), there were still plenty of other talented golfers in the Two Rivers 3A in 2016, including Schweitz, the second-place finisher.
Triton’s Nick Page fashioned a 68 on Monday.