Playoffs are nothing new to Searcy’s Payton Wilhoit.
Last week in the USGA Junior Amateur qualifier at Hot Springs, he finished second after forcing an extra hole. But he learned from that experience.
He found himself in a three-way playoff Tuesday at Pine Bluff Country Club after shooting a 1-under 70, five strokes better than Monday. All he needed Monday was a bogey on the par-4 third playoff hole to earn his first victory of the summer, beating defending champion Cameron McRae of Hot Springs for the boys overall title in the Bubba Smart Junior Stroke Play.
“I’ve been so close so many times,” said Wilhoit, 16, the reigning 3A state champion from Harding Academy. “I’ve been top-five every single time, but to finally get a win, it feels so good.”
Texarkana’s Grayson Jones, the 14- to 15-year-old division winner, matched McRae’s 74 and 71 rounds to join the playoff. But he fell out of the running on the first hole, when he parred and Wilhoit and McRae birdied.
Then the drama really unfolded.
From about 40 feet on the No. 2 green, Wilhoit’s birdie attempt fell a foot short, but knocked it in the cup for par. McRae had a chance to win it with about a 30-foot putt, but the ball struck a divot and stopped 6 feet short of the cup. McRae converted the next attempt to keep the playoff going.
“I just knew I had to make it, so all the focus I had, I put it on that,” McRae said.
Both players had a tough third shot on the par-4 No. 3. Wilhoit’s chip from the sand trap landed on the fringe just in front of him, while McRae ran into trouble hitting a tree from just off the fairway. McRae’s fourth shot went to the back of the green, and his long putt from about 40 feet landed just shy of the hole, forcing him to settle for a double bogey.
“I didn’t hit any putts at all, so that kind of killed me,” McRae said.
Wilhoit two-putted after his chip shot, converting a bogey from just a foot away for the win. He said he still felt nerves because he three-putted on that hole earlier.
But he capitalized on what was already a strong day for him.
“It really helped I eagled the second hole and birdied the third hole,” said Wilhoit, who started on No. 10. “Being off to that good of a start, it just sort of calmed me down. I sort of tripped up on the back nine, and I hit the ball way better than I did (Monday) and made a few putts early. That’s pretty much what happened.”
Chase Netherton, the first-round leader from Conway who’s headed to Ouachita Baptist, struggled Tuesday with a 77 and finished third with a 6-over 148, three strokes behind the leaders. Griffin Smith of Sheridan was sixth with a 156 and Micah Cottrell of Pine Bluff took ninth with a 159.
Jones won his division by six strokes over Reese Nichols of Texarkana. First-round leader Drew Castleberry of Alexander settled for third with a 153.
Hunter Hickingbotham of Little Rock was a wire-to-wire winner in the boys 12-13 division, shooting 164 after a second-round 81. Josh McNulty of White Hall was second with a 179.
The girls division was a closer race. Hannah Bakalekos of Sherwood shot Tuesday’s low round of 74 for a two-day 152 to win by two strokes over Katelyn Dunstan of Little Rock and Kirsten Garner of Hot Springs. Dunstan won the playoff for second place.
“I had to birdie a lot of holes,” said Bakalekos, 14, a soon-to-be freshman at North Little Rock High. “I blew up on a couple (Monday) and I was trying not to blow up.”
The tournament saw 60 players ages 10-18 compete for two days at Pine Bluff Country Club. According to golf professional Reggie Grant, the Bubba Smart tournament has grown from 30 participants since he’s been at the club.
“We are so happy to have a junior event here that brings in so many good young golfers from our state,” Grant said, acknowledging Smart Auto Group and Relyance Bank as sponsors.
Pine Bluff Country Club will play host to the PGA Junior Tour stop on July 12 and the ASGA-designated tournament July 13-14.
Bubba Smart Junior Stroke Play Leaderboard (final)
Par 71; *—won in playoff
Boys 16-18 (top 10)
1. Payton Wilhoit, Searcy, 75-70—145*
2. Cameron McRae, Hot Springs, 74-71—145
3. Chase Netherton, Conway, 71-77—148
4. Carson Roberts, Conway, 71-77—148
5. Lincoln Hill, Conway, 78-73—151
6. Griffin Smith, Sheridan, 78-78—156
7. Edward Thompson, Benton, 84-74—158
8. Cole Pangburn, Maumelle, 81-78—159
9. Micah Cottrell, Pine Bluff, 77-83—160
10. Jeffrey Manning, White Hall, 76-87—163
Girls 10-18 (all entrants)
1. Hannah Bakalekos, Sherwood, 78-74—152
2. Katelyn Dunstan, Little Rock, 76-78—154*
3. Kirsten Garner, Hot Springs, 77-77—154
4. Stephanie Leake, Little Rock, 80-76—156
5. Lauren Johnson, DeWitt, 85-79—164
6. Allie Weiner, Maumelle, 82-85—167
Tie-7. Ann Roe, Little Rock, 90-85—175
Tie-7. Taylor Reed, Little Rock, 89-86—175
9. Alexis McDaniel, Little Rock, 91-91—182
10. Juli Brown, Little Rock, 100-90—190
Boys 14-15 (top 10)
1. Grayson Jones, Texarkana, 74-71—145
2. Reese Nichols, Texarkana, 77-74—151
3. Drew Castleberry, Alexander, 73-80—153
4. Witt Parker, Conway, 78-76—154
5. Caleb Kubacek, 77-86—163
6. Andrew Mayes, Little Rock, 82-82—164
7. Ryan Spurlock, Maumelle, 84-81—165
8. August Reynolds, Harrison, 80-88—168
9. Cole Nichols, Texarkana, 85-86—171
10. Logan Greer, Harrison, 92-80—172
Boys 12-13 (all entrants)
1. Hunter Hickingbotham, Little Rock, 83-81—164
2. Josh McNulty, White Hall, 93-86—179
3. Mastin Frazer, Warren, 106-108—214