[This is my column in the Oct. 1 issue of The Commercial Review.]
I don’t golf very much, but I can spot a gifted golfer when I see one.
Sydney Willis is that type of golfer.
Strong. Smart. Talented.
And most importantly, humble.
She knows she’s good, but she doesn’t let it go to her head.
I’ve seen the South Adams High School senior compete on the golf course on a number of occasions in the last three seasons, and from the first time I saw her play — it was 2013 during a dual match against Jay County at Portland Golf Club — I knew she was special.
Each passing year has justified that first impression.
And each year, she’s gotten better.
Two years ago I wrote a story about how a change in IHSAA rules allowed Willis to compete for the Starfires. After all, she and her two younger sisters are home schooled.
That fall, I sat down at Golf Club of the Limberlost in Geneva with Willis and her mother, Shannon, so they could tell me their story.
Like most young athletes, Sydney wanted to excel. She had dreams of having the sport pay for her college education, and eventually becoming a professional.
Later that season, Willis reached the state meet, but didn’t do very well.
She placed 49th.
As a junior, she wanted to prove that she belonged with the top golfers in the state. She led the Starfires to the program’s first regional berth, but she fell short of advancing to state.
So she continued to put in the work to get back for her senior year. In August, she said the disappointment she felt during 2014 was going to be used as motivation during her final high school season.
She started 2015 on a mission. She won medalist honors in every match during the regular season except one — the season finale Sept. 17 against Norwell. She lost by three strokes to Amber Nelson, but in the process helped South Adams to a 12-0 record.
Two days later at sectional, Willis got revenge on Nelson, beating her by three strokes to win the individual title.
Saturday at regional, Willis had her worst 18-hole round of the season — 77, which most high school golfers would consider their best — but still advanced to the state finals.
“There was a little bit of mental breakdown at regional,” she said. “I let a double bogey get into my head and then it turned into a triple bogey.”
Three high school golf seasons, two state finals appearances.
Not bad for someone who almost didn’t get to golf in high school.
Some athletes talk about wanting to improve and get better.
More often than not, those players are just that — talk.
A couple times during her sophomore season she broke 80.
Two years later, she’s disappointed if she even approaches 80.
It’s a testament to how far she has come.
I sat down with her Wednesday to talk about her upcoming performance at the state finals, and we chatted about how she did as a sophomore.
Without hesitation, she knew exactly where she placed.
The scores, however, she did not remember.
So I showed her — an 83 on Friday, 84 on Saturday for a two-day total of 167 — and pointed out that she was 23 strokes behind the leader.
“That was a terrible score,” she said, laughing, knowing how much better she’s gotten.
It was almost like she was embarrassed to see scores that high.
But for someone who has put in the work she has — she spent most of her summer playing in tournaments, working on her swing and trying to perfect her game — seeing how “bad” she was should come as no surprise.
“I knew it wasn’t that pretty,” she added. “I (was) in the top half, but barely.
“I know I want to improve on that and that I can.”
Through six 18-hole tournaments, Willis is averaging around 75 strokes.
“I’m two years older,” she said. “I’m two years more mature, two years more experienced.
“I have more power. I have more accuracy — at times [she laughed] — as long as my head is right. I feel like then I didn’t have the capability to finish well. Now I definitely have the capability to do that so it is a little bit of an expectation of mine.”
Medal or not, Willis understands that after this weekend her golf career is not over. She has received a number of offers to play in college — just like she predicted two years ago — but she has yet to make any sort of commitment.
“This chapter is ending and I get to start the next one,” she said “I’m still going to be motivated to get better because I have more competition coming next year.”
And if the last two years are any indication, she will just continue to improve.