'Not Good Enough,' Bae Rises to Meet Competition July 21, 2015 | Bluffton, S.C. By Stuart Hall

Staying faithful to his game has helped Eric Bae qualify for another U.S. Junior Amateur. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

As last summer began to ebb into fall, Eric Bae came to the realization that as the seasons passed him by, so did his junior golf contemporaries.

"You see everyone else who I used to play golf with start getting into invitational tournaments that I am not getting into,” said Bae, 17, of Pinehurst, N.C. "When that happens you just realize that you’re not good enough."

Not good enough?

At that point, Bae could have put away his clubs and moved on. Instead, the rising senior at Pinecrest High School stayed faithful to a game he had been playing since age 6.

“It really grinded my gears,” said Bae. “It was a longtime thing that was building up and I finally decided to do something about it.”

He began to practice more. He began to play more. 

This week’s 68th U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at Colleton River Plantation Club’s Dye Course may be a barometer of how much progress Bae has made. 

A year ago at The Club at Carlton Woods in The Woodlands, Texas, Bae shot a championship record-tying 29 on the inward nine of his second round to make the 64-player match-play field. He reached the Round of 32.

"I kind of messed up coming in on my second match and I feel like I could have gone a lot deeper in match play,” said Bae of last year’s experience. "But I just enjoyed it. You don’t always get to play in tournaments this big that much."

Knowing he may have left some chips on a table that was cleared by eventual champion and potential Wake Forest University teammate Will Zalatoris served as more motivation for Bae.

Soon after the championship, Bae and his family moved an hour south of their home in Raleigh, N.C., to Pinehurst so that Bae could play for Pinecrest, one of the state’s top golf programs.  

Mike Hicks, who guided Payne Stewart to the 1999 U.S. Open, is caddieing for Eric Bae at this week's Junior Amateur. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

Bae, who posted 4-over 148 and was likely to make the match-play cut, joined a program that included senior Josh Martin, the top-ranked junior golfer in the state who will join older brother Zach at the University of North Carolina this fall.

Of the move, Bae said: "It put me with a lot more competition, like Josh Martin. And you also realize that you can learn things from him. I just wanted to keep improving."

Bae embraced the challenge, and soon began reaping the rewards. In February, Bae announced his intentions to play at Wake Forest in  2016.

At the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s 4-A Championship in early May at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course Nos. 4 and 2, Bae shot a pair of 70s to finish at 4-under 140 and win the individual title by two strokes. Teammate Martin finished fifth at 1 over as Pinecrest won its third state title in the last eight years.

Bae’s caddie this week is family friend Mike Hicks, who knows a few things about golf and winning on Pinehurst No. 2. Hicks was a longtime PGA Tour caddie who was on the late Payne Stewart’s bag for his memorable 1999 U.S. Open victory.

Hicks believes Bae is on the right track.

“He’s very steady, he’s very consistent,” Hicks said. “He’s not flashy with any part of his game, he’s just solid – solid ball striker, solid chipper, solid putter. He’s just a good player.”

A couple of weeks after winning the state title, Bae won the Carolinas Golf Association’s Creed Junior Boys’ Invitational, holing a 20-foot par putt on the final hole to win the 36-hole event by a stroke.

While pleased with the overall state of his game, Bae, who does not work with a personal instructor, said his putting is the current strength of his game.

“I’m hitting good putts, it’s just whether they go in or not,” he said. “But I am hitting it where I am looking.”

Bae, who was adopted at a young age by his uncle, John Armstrong, also a former PGA Tour caddie, remembers days in which he and his older sister, Sarah, would go into their spacious backyard and hit balls for hours. Sarah is a former state high school champion now playing at North Carolina State University. 

“I have been watching him play since he started playing, basically,” Hicks said.

“He’s always excelled, even at an early age. He kind of does his own thing. He knows what’s going on. He’s a smart kid.”

Smart enough to realize he did not want to be washed over by another wave of top junior golfers.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.