Patriot Games

Building on a tradition of success

By Lee Pace

Pinehurst is where the golf architectural genius of Donald Ross sprouted. It’s where thousands of visitors in the 1910s and ’20s were first exposed to golf, were smitten and spread the idea for new courses in their hometowns across the Northeast and Midwest. The No. 2 course at the resort has been host to the U.S. Open (men and women), the U.S. Amateur (men and women), the Ryder Cup and PGA Championship.

There are 40 golf courses within Moore County and a sand wedge of its border.

So why shouldn’t the area be home to one of North Carolina’s juggernaut high school golf teams?

Pinecrest High School has won the boys 4-A state title four of the last six years and collected three in a row from 2015-17. The Patriots finished fifth in the most recent state competition, with Raleigh Broughton taking the championship while Pinecrest’s A.J. Beechler won his second consecutive individual title.

“We broke open the floodgates my senior year, and it seemed to really set the tone for what was to come with future teams,” says Zach Martin, a member of the 2013 state championship team who went on to play at the University of North Carolina. “The success builds on itself. This run of state championships is pretty strong.”

The Patriots’ remarkable stretch of success in both the boys’ and girls’ programs began two decades ago when one of the staff golf professionals at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club was frustrated that there was no golf team at West Pine Middle School. Rich Wainwright wanted a team that his son John, a sixth-grader, could play on and begin to develop his game. So Wainwright volunteered to start a team, hoping John and his friends would be motivated to continue the game into high school at Pinecrest.

“I remember having a lot of fun with it,” says John, who is now 32, and is a golf instructor and tournament director for U.S. Kids Golf in Southern Pines. “A lot of guys got the bug then. Once our team started, we bonded and became lifelong friends. We had golf to talk about during the school day, and it was fun getting out of school for golf matches. That bond and that structure helped when we went to high school.”

When John moved to high school, Wainwright began volunteering as a coach for the Pinecrest team in 2000 and has been the Patriots’ “co-coach” ever since, working with high school staffers Sandy Sackmann, Jennifer Kearney and Lynne Beechler through the years. Wainwright enjoyed his experiences teaching juniors at the club dating back to the 1980s and was further motivated by his boss at Pinehurst, the late Don Padgett Sr., who was a longtime proponent of junior golf and was the resort’s director of golf from 1987-2002.

“Rich always loved to work with youth; he had a drive and enthusiasm to work with young people,” says Ken Crow, who was also on the Pinehurst staff at the time and now has a son, Benjamin, on the Pinecrest team. “Back in the ’80s, Rich was the guy having the most fun in junior clinics, encouraging them to get better.”

Wainwright remembers commiserating with Padgett in the early 2000s over a patch of high scores posted in recent competitions. Padgett, as he was wont to do, leaned back in his office chair overlooking the putting green to the south side of the Pinehurst clubhouse and addressed Wainwright by his nickname, Red.

“Red, just have ’em putt,” Padgett advised. “Teach those kids the short game. Have ’em pitch the ball over that row of bushes and see who can get it closest.”

The light popped on in Wainwright’s head. For going on two decades now, it’s been all about the short game — sage advice not only for high school golf teams but rank-and-file golfers of every shape, size and era.

“If these kids have good short games, we can win most tournaments,” Wainwright says. “I do very little to nothing in the full swing. We do a lot of situational short game practice.”

Golfers coming through the program remember all the 5-foot putts at sundown, their stomachs growling for dinner and the pressure of having to make x-number in succession so everyone could go home.

“We learned a lot about playing under pressure,” Martin says. “Everyone on the team would have to make, like, 10 putts in a row before anyone could go home. You don’t want to be the guy who misses and keeps everyone there to putt another round.”

Sometimes Wainwright will have his golfers hole out a chip before they can leave or even jar two from a bunker before calling it a day. He’ll set up recovery shots from the woods and encourage his golfers to envision a shot with a 7-iron and another with a pitching wedge.

“He’s a numbers guy,” Martin says. “Golf comes down to the short game when you want to score well. He definitely puts a lot of importance on it. It’s paid off the last few years.”

“Dad’s gotten pretty good teaching guys how to play the game of golf better,” John says. “He doesn’t spend too much range time. It’s all about how to get the ball in the hole. How do you still score when you’re not having your best day at ball-striking? It’s been neat to watch him evolve.”

It’s obviously worked well. Pinecrest won the girls’ state title in 2001 and 2016 and the boys’ in 2006, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, and more than a dozen golfers have advanced to play collegiately.

Joshua Martin followed older brother Zach to Chapel Hill. Jack Fields and Robert Riesen also played at Carolina, Eric Bae at Wake Forest and Josh Stockwell at UNC Greensboro. This year’s boys’ team has four players going to Division I schools in Benjamin Crow and Symon Balbin to UNC Greensboro and A.J. Beechler and Attie Giles to East Carolina.

Among the top girls’ players have been Josie Shinn at UNC, Gabrielle Weiss at James Madison, Elizabeth Nguyen at Georgetown and Mackenzie Battle at The Citadel. Wainwright is particularly high on sophomore Jaclyn Kenzel and senior Lorin Wagler on this year’s team.

The environment has helped attract golfers who otherwise might not have been in Pinehurst. Bae, who was born in South Korea, was living in Raleigh when he made the decision to fully commit to becoming an elite golfer, and moved to Pinehurst to live with his adopted uncle.

“If you want to get good at golf, where better place to be than Pinehurst?” asks Bae, who earned a starting position as a freshman last spring at Wake Forest and is a sophomore now. “Playing for Pinecrest was an awesome experience. I enjoyed every minute of it. Guys like Joshua Martin and A.J. were really competitive; it helped me improve as a player. Coach Wainwright created a really good environment for me to improve.”

In mid-April, the Patriots were playing a match at Pinehurst No. 8, the scene of their 2015 state title, when Bae eagled the par-5 17th and then birdied 18 to secure the championship. Giles had a 50-yard wedge shot and knocked it in the hole for an eagle.

“Coach, I channeled my ‘inner Eric Bae,’” Giles told Wainwright.

Wainwright texted Bae and told him, “You’re still helping us win golf tournaments.”

That’s the way it goes in championship athletic programs — success begets success. A culture is created and grows on itself.

“I’ve had a lot of fun,” Wainwright says. “I like to win. My goal is 10 state championships. We’re closing in on it.”  PS

Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace has been chronicling the Sandhills golf scene in PineStraw since 2008.

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