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Houston, we have a winner…again

Gilford senior Chris Houston captured his fourth straight state title at Pheasant Ridge

The Gilford golf team poses with its runner-up plaque after finishing second in Division III Oct. 6. Jeff Lajoie. (click for larger version)
October 10, 2011
GILFORD – For Chris Houston, rewriting history came easy last week.

The Gilford High School senior became the first player in NHIAA history to capture four consecutive state golf championships on Saturday, as his two-day total of 137 (three-under par) was more than enough to give him the Division III crown at Pheasant Ridge Golf Club.

The tournament got going two days earlier however, as Houston and the Golden Eagles competed in the team tournament, with the Top 12 individuals moving onto Saturday's individual round. Conditions were cold and windy during the first round on Thursday, but the Eagles still managed a team score of 341, good enough for a runner-up finish behind state champion Mascenic (327).

"What had to happen for us absolutely played out," said Gilford coach Jim Swarthout of the Eagles' path to finishing second. "The guys stayed right around their average. And Chris, once again, even in these conditions, he put this team on his back."

Houston fired a three-under par round of 67 to take medalist honors in both Divisions III and IV, while Rich Edson (89), Cam Patridge (91) and Beck Stecher (94) were the other three Gilford scorers. Gunnar Stecher (98) and Josh Messier (102) also competed for the Eagles.

"I felt pretty good out there, fortunate to make a few birdies early," said Houston after Thursday's 67. "The wind picked up as the day went on so I wanted to take advantage when I could."

Houston made the turn at one-under par, teeing off in the shotgun format on the 14th hole. He dropped a shot at number eight, the tough par three, when he bogeyed after missing the green left. But the senior rebounded in a hurry, as his approach on number nine came to just four feet and he sank the putt for birdie to get back to red numbers at minus-1.

After parring the par five 10th hole, Houston's round got an exciting burst of energy with just three holes to play. Off the green at number 11, Houston chipped over a bunker, running the ball 25 yards and into the cup for a birdie three that elicited a fist pump from the stoic striker.

If that wasn't enough, there was room for an encore on number 12, as Houston elected to use his putter from the fringe. The 30-plus foot putt was read perfectly, and he sank his second consecutive birdie to move to three-under. Houston parred his final hole of the day on number 13, and he took his 67 to the clubhouse.

"It was tough to get all the way up the hill on 11 after where I put my drive," Houston recalled. "I'm thinking the best case scenario there is an up-and-down for par but I got a little lucky and made birdie. I wasn't expecting to make birdie at either hole but sometimes things like that go in your favor."

Houston's 67 put Gilford in a great position, as he was 10 shots clear of the next highest finisher on the course.

"I think we had an 11-stroke advantage when the number one's come in, and in a stroke play event with only four scores, that's a big cushion," said Swarthout. "When he gave us that from the start, I knew that if the other guys would come in around where they were supposed to come in, we'd be in the running."

While undefeated Mascenic lived up to its billing via the 14-shot win, Gilford managed to edge stiff competition for the runner-up slot, as the Eagles' 341 was two clear of third place Conant (343) and three clear of fourth place Kearsarge (344).

"We knew the scores were going to be higher today just because of the weather," Swarthout explained. "Wind in golf is a very tough variable to overcome and I just kept telling the kids, 'Every stroke is going to matter.' You've got to just keep plugging away and we did that."

It was a much different looking Gilford team this fall, as the Eagles lineup featured several inexperienced golfers compared to a veteran squad a year ago.

"I'm pretty proud of the way the rest of the guys played today," said Houston. "For them, it was a long day because a lot of the guys haven't played 18 holes too often. I had a pretty good time this year helping them out. It was a different role for me."

Swarthout was impressed with his team's progress over the short season, as five Eagles managed to break 100 en route to the second-place finish.

"I've said it all along, you give me some athletes and they'll come through for you," he said. "For some of these guys, it's probably only their second or third 18-hole round they've ever played. Some of these guys have only seen the back nine once or maybe twice all season. That's just natural ability taking over. I think they fed off Chris. When you know you've got a number one that's going to be around par or better starting out, that's a pretty confident thing for the rest of the team."

The tournament was originally scheduled for White Mountain Country Club in Ashland, though wet weather early in the week made Pheasant Ridge a last minute replacement. The course was closed for the two days prior to the tournament to allow it to dry out in time.

"They had about a day to get it ready for us," said Swarthout, who is also the course's director of golf. "I can't say enough about the grounds crew, they had a lot of pressure on them, they stayed late. But they put it together and it was a championship-caliber course today, you can't say anything else about it."

With Houston capturing his fourth and final state title, he admits he had thoughts of his first crown in 2008, also held at Pheasant Ridge. His even par round of 70 on Saturday gave him an 18-stroke win over runner-up Tucker Lacaroz of Kearsarge (155).

"I had flashbacks of four years ago, the playoff I was in here," Houston said. "A lot has changed in those four years. My game is completely different, I've grown a lot since then."

While a lot has changed, Swarthout knows Houston's dominance isn't one of them.

"I didn't think there's anyone that was in Chris' caliber," he explained. "Wind doesn't bother him like other kids, he knows how to adapt to it. He's in a different league from these guys. This is a kid who works very hard, he's dedicated and this is what he loves to do. There's nothing he hasn't seen in his career as far as weather, competition, it doesn't matter. It just takes a special kind and that's him. Coaches go through an entire coaching career and don't have a dominant player, but he's been dominant since day one."

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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