Make no mistake, the American Junior Golf Association demands a lot of time and resources. It is like a mini-PGA Tour for junior golf, holding world-class tournaments in 30 different states across the country.
So imagine the collective air of excitement from the top teenagers in Washington who were able to finally play an AJGA event in their home state — and one sponsored by a high-profile touring professional in Puyallup’s Ryan Moore.
Even if the PGA Tour veteran had been allowed to handpick the winners beforehand, he would have been hard pressed to choose two more deserving champions of the inaugural Ryan Moore Junior Championship.
Kirkland’s Frank Garber, widely considered the top high school golfer in the state, won the boys division Thursday by closing with a 3-under-par 67. That was good for a one-stroke win at RMG Club at Oakbrook.
His three-round total of 4-under 206 edged a pair of Lakewood products — runner-up Greg Gildea (69) at 3-under 207, and third-place finisher RJ Manke (70) at 2-under 208.
The girls event wasn’t so close, mainly because the consistency of Sammamish’s Ashley Fitzgibbons wore down the field.
The Eastlake High School sophomore-to-be posted her third consecutive round of 1-under 69 to win by five strokes over Spokane’s Sierra Kersten and China’s Fumie Jo.
It was Garber’s first AJGA win in 10 attempts and Fitzgibbons’ first triumph in seven tries.
“The fact that it is here, and in the Seattle area, it means so much to win,” said Garber, a Juanita High School senior-to-be who has orally committed to play at the University of Washington.
“It is cool not having to travel somewhere like California to play.
And it’s really cool it was here at Oakbrook, and Ryan sponsored it — a lot of fun.”
That was a sentiment shared widely by the in-state golfers who played. RMG Club at Oakbrook, a course Moore’s management group purchased in early 2012, held up well against some of the best juniors.
“What usually wins in AJGA is 4 or 5 under,” Gildea said, “so it was right around there — not too easy, not too hard.”
After Manke eagled the 14th hole by sinking a 12-foot putt, and Gildea got up and down from a greenside bunker on that same par 5 for birdie, they joined Garber in the lead at 4 under.
But Gildea ripped an 8-iron tee shot at the 195-yard, par-3 16th too long, and made bogey. And Manke stumbled late with bogeys at the 15th and 17th holes.
It left the 111th-ranked Garber — who made 10 consecutive pars to close out the round — alone in that position. And on the finishing hole, he hit his approach shot close and made a final easy par to win.
It was a uneventful winning style Moore would have been proud of — and Garber knew it.
“I just focused on one shot at a time and gave myself birdie chances on every hole,” Garber said. “The best players in the world find a way to grind it out even when they don’t have their best. I didn’t really have my absolute ‘A’ game this week, but I made it work.”
Meanwhile, Fitzgibbons thought she let the field back into it when she ended her opening nine holes at 3 over par for the round.
But she caught fire, making birdies at the 10th, 11th and 12th holes. Then she rolled in a 14-footer at No. 14 for a fourth birdie to run away with the win.
“I did not want to embarrass myself by having a four-stroke lead going into the final day and then blowing it,” Fitzgibbons said. “On No. 10, I kind of got angry.”
It wasn’t just about the winners Thursday — it was about junior golf in Washington. A second Ryan Moore Junior Championship is expected to return to this course next year, AJGA officials confirmed.
“Everyone thinks this is great,” said Alivia Brown, a Bellarmine Prep golfer who was playing in just her second AJGA tournament. “It makes it really cool that someone from the tour (Moore) cares that much about putting on a junior tournament. It was fun to see him and hear some things he had to say.”Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/golf @ManyHatsMilles