Eckroat Learning to Deal With Nerves on Big Stage July 21, 2016 | Ooltewah, Tenn. By Stuart Hall

Austin Eckroat came to The Honors Course feeling confident after his dramatic win in April at Sage Valley. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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Make no mistake, Austin Eckroat would love to post more lopsided victories. 

But, if his pulsating one-stroke April win in the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley prepared him for this week’s 69th U.S. Junior Amateur Championship, then it was worth any frayed nerves.

“It was huge,” said Eckroat of that win. “It settled me for these big events. I am a little less nervous knowing that I can do it.”

The 17-year-old from Edmond, Okla., has been prevailing this week at The Honors Course. After shooting a 1-over 145 to tie for 18th in stroke play, he defeated Brandon Mancheno, 16, of Jacksonville, Fla., 4 and 2, in the Round of 64.

After winning the fifth and sixth holes to go 2 up against Mancheno, last year’s U.S. Junior Amateur medalist, Eckroat never relinquished his lead. When Eckroat made the turn, he was in his element.

“My ball-striking on the front nine all three days hasn’t been that good,” he said. “It seems like on the range, I struggle a little bit, then I finally find something around the eighth or ninth hole. But the putter feels really good and I’m chipping really well.”

Eckroat will take his good vibes into Thursday’s Round-of-32 encounter against Arjun Puri, of India.

In a sense, Eckroat has been building toward this week for the past few years.

In 2014, he became the first freshman to win the Oklahoma 6A high school individual title. Last year, he set the tournament scoring record en route to winning the Scott Robertson Memorial in Roanoke, Va., and followed that with the Oklahoma Junior Boys title against a 16-player match-play field.

“I always felt I could, but winning the Scott Robertson was huge. It made me feel like I could play against the best,” said Eckroat, who added that his Oklahoma Junior Amateur title gave him some much-needed match play experience. “I haven’t played a lot of match play, but I love it.”

Those wins were steppingstones.

Against an international field at Sage Valley, Eckroat opened with a 7-under 65 and took a five-stroke lead into the final round. His lead began to dwindle as Australia’s Min Woo Lee, who also advanced to the Round of 32 in this week’s U.S. Junior Amateur, made a charge from nine strokes back and posted a final-round 67. After making bogey on the 16th hole to fall into a tie with Lee, Eckroat saved par with a 12-foot putt and set up his 54th-hole heroics.

On the 18th hole, Eckroat laced a 2-iron approach to 18 feet above the hole and faced a hard-breaking, right-to-left putt. He converted the birdie for the win.

Eckroat’s father, Steve, sees a difference in his son since that win.

“I’ve seen a change in his expectations and the way he interacts with kids at this level,” he said. “Before, they just knew his name, but after he won, they knew who he was.

“Winning the way he did, having a lead, losing it and then finding a way to win, I believe will help him more than if he had won going away.”

This week, Eckroat has seen some similarities to that final round at Sage Valley.

“I had to dig down deep to find a way to win,” he said. “It was similar to the way I have been striking the ball on the front nine [at The Honors Course]. I’m a little off and that’s how I hit it in the final round at Sage. Obviously, to get it done that week was a big confidence boost. Knowing I can make a big putt that I needed to make.”

Given the chips on the table this week, Eckroat may be faced with another such putt for a win.

He, no doubt, will be up to the task.

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

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