SOUTHERN PINES – It was totally understandable that Annika Winebarger was nervous during the final round of the 2-A/1-A State Championship at Longleaf Golf and Country Club.
The senior from Elkin High School found herself in the lead after an opening-round 74 on Oct. 28 and she was in the final pairing with two-time defending champ Isabella Rusher of Salisbury. Outside of taking medalist honors in some regular season conference matches, Winebarger had never won a junior tournament.
“I was super nervous going in,” she admitted. “I said, ‘wow, I’m facing the two-time defending champ.’ We’re good friends but it was my first time playing with her in a big tournament.”
Winebarger settled down during the round and put together some solid play, but then her nerves came back on the final hole. What followed was storybook.
Although she wasn’t quite sure how she stood, Winebarger had a two-shot lead going into the par-4 18th. But she pulled her tee shot into the left rough and found her ball behind a tree, some 150 yards from the green.
“I saw all those people up there on the green and I got really nervous,” she said. “I’m not used to having huge crowds. But I talked to myself and said ‘you can do this’ so I just took a couple of practice swings and just went for it from there. It went right through the limbs. It was my most perfect shot all day – seven feet from the hole.
“I got lucky. If it went one foot above or one foot below it would have probably hit the tree.”
The drama still wasn’t over as there was a putt to make.
“All the teams were up there (around the green) and I didn’t want to look at the crowd but I could see them in my periphery. I was shaking reading my putt but I said ‘you got this and let it fall right in.’”
The birdie gave her a second-round 77 and pushed her final margin to three shots over Rusher (75-79) and teammate Mary Frances Hall (80-74).
Elkin finished third in the team standings as Salisbury ran away to its third straight title with 474. Newport Croatan was 57 shots off the pace while Elkin was just two shots back of Croatan. The Elks, however, were the best of the four 1-A schools that made the nine-team field.
“She’s always been really enthusiastic,” said Elkin coach Sena Hinson of Winebarger. “She’s been eager to learn and always wanted to practice and she’s improved each year.”
Winebarger didn’t make the state tournament as a freshman but placed 11th as a sophomore and 14th last year. Her previous best score at the state tournament was 85.
Her game made great strides since last high school season.
“I really tried to work hard and lower my scores this past summer,” she said. “All those tournaments I played in really helped me. I got to know what I needed to work on and I focused more on the mental game.”
She attributed her friendship with Hall as a key to her success.
“We’ve been best friends since I was little and we’ve been playing in junior tournaments starting with U.S. Kids,” she said. “We practice together and do a lot of stuff together. The last two years in high school golf, she’s won half and I’ve won half. She has really pushed me. I think we’re good for each other.”
Though she didn’t make states as a freshman, she went to watch Hall compete.
“That inspired me to keep trying.”
Hall finished 14th that season, the final year where the small schools were in the same division with the 3-As.
Hall tied for fourth in 2011, was solo fourth as a junior, then notched the tie for second to close her prep career.
Her senior final round was one of her best as she led the field with a 74, a solid comeback from a first-round 80.
Hinson, who has retired from teaching but came back to coach this season, said she will probably continue although it won’t be the same without the dynamic duo of Winebarger and Hall. Winebarger will play collegiate golf at Catawba while Hall is still considering her options.
The Elks will welcome back Palmer Duncan, a relative newcomer to the game. The sophomore advanced through regionals and shot 113-115 at states. She’s only been playing competitively since the start of the school season.
To field a team, high schools must have a minimum of three players.
“Hopefully, we’ll have enough girls,” Hinson said. “Our athletics director is going to start a middle school team in the spring so maybe we can get some more girls interested.”