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Leopards 'faith' leads to county title

August 23, 2002|by DAN KAUFFMAN

kauffman@herald-mail.com

Bitten by bad breaks in the middle of his round, Smithsburg senior golfer Seiji Hirai could have let his shot at a second straight Washington County championship slip away.

Instead, Hirai stayed patient and made a final charge worthy of being called champion at Black Rock Golf Course on Thursday.

Hirai lost six shots to par over nine holes - started by a gut-wrenching triple bogey on No. 5 - but battled back to birdie three of the last five holes, including both par-5s, for a 1-over 73 to repeat as champion.

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"I just had to keep faith," Hirai said about his roller coaster-like round. "I've played this course too many times to quit on the round. I knew I could make birdies on the back nine."

Smithsburg, behind Hirai and second-place finisher Riley Ledden - the No. 4 player for the Leopards who shot a surprising 76 - won the team title with 313 points.

"With Riley, it just goes to show you what a lot of hard work will do," Smithsburg coach Dan Neff said. "He puts in a lot of time, and it pays off. It shows how deep we are, when our fourth kid finishes second."

Hirai, who set the tournament record with a 3-under 69 last year, looked as if he would run away with the tournament out of the gate on Thursday, birdieing the first two holes.

But on the par-4 fifth, a short hole with a severe dogleg right, Hirai tried to cut the corner and drive the green. The shot looked great off the tee, but was not found down by the green.

Hirai had to take a penalty, then hit his third shot from back at the tee. The resulting triple bogey ruined a sterling start.

"I've experienced too many times getting upset and making an even bigger score than I should have," Hirai said of his walk back to the tee. "I had a bad hole, and I tried to forget about it and move on."

"I told him we'd see what his character is," Neff said. "He told me, 'it's no big deal, coach.'"

But Hirai continued to struggle. He three-putted at No. 7 for bogey, and his drive at No. 9 sailed left and ran into a lake more than 260 yards from the tee - out of play for most players.

Hirai salvaged bogey on the hole, then parred holes 10, 11 and 12 before failing to get up and down from a bunker at No. 13 - the toughest hole of the day - for another bogey, leaving him at 4-over.

"Even after bogey on 13, that's the toughest hole out there, and five is not a bad score," Hirai said. "I knew I could birdie the par-5s, maybe even make an eagle."

Hirai attacked the par-5 14th with a drive and three-wood, reaching the long hole in two and two-putting for birdie. After a par at 15, a booming drive at the par-5 16th left him with an 8-iron to reach the green. Two putts later, Hirai had another birdie.

Then at the par-3, 143-yard 17th, Hirai hit a wedge to 10 feet and made the putt to finish his surge and lock up the title.

"By 17, with two birdies, I had loosened up," Hirai said. "I was enjoying my round again. Looking over the putt, I had a good feeling it would go in."

North Hagerstown's Mike Wade finished third with 77, while Smithsburg's Steve Young and Williamsport's Will Roney tied for fifth with 80.

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