By Earl Vaughan Jr.
If there’s such a thing as the perfect sport in the time of COVID-19, golf is a strong candidate.
Played outdoors, with built-in social distancing, golfers would seem almost immune to the effects of the disease.
But Cumberland County high school players, who are already halfway through an abbreviated regular season, are still taking every precaution to make sure the few competitive rounds they are being allowed to enjoy won’t be cut short by a positive COVID-19 test.
The convoluted spring schedule caused by some sports being played out of season has also created challenges for coaches like Terry Sanford’s Jeff Morehead. Head golf coach for the Bulldog boys, Morehead is pulling double duty as an assistant coach for the Bulldog football team.
“I’ve had a good group around me with our friends at Highland Country Club,’’ he said. “Our girls’ coach, Thomas Albanese, has been really assisting me, and our guys have been flexible and understanding for sure.’’
Two matches into the season, the Bulldogs have seven individual scores in the 70s, which is no surprise to Morehead. “This group of guys, all seven of them, they eat, breathe and sleep golf,’’ he said. “It’s awesome to see the passion and love they have for the game.’’
Among the best on the team are Spencer Barbour and Ethan Paschal.
Barbour was the low scorer in the only match Terry Sanford played before everything was shut down in 2020. Morehead said Barbour has played many of the county courses and qualified for the state tournament as a freshman.
“He’s a very confident young man on the golf course,’’ Morehead said.
Paschal is one of the top young golfers in the region. He’s played a lot of tournament golf on the courses at Pinehurst and has twice recorded personal low rounds of 63 on Terry Sanford’s home course at Highland.
“He is a special golfer,’’ Morehead said. “He’s got a very bright future. He worked extremely hard on his game last year.
Barbour feels the Bulldogs have an excellent chance to do well as a team this year because of the talented younger players on the team. “It’s a lot more competitive than it was last year,’’ he said. “I feel we’ve got a really good chance at states.’’
Barbour doesn’t think the Bulldogs have played their best golf of the season yet. “I feel we’ll have a lot more confidence going into the regionals and be able to take that to the states,’’ he said.
Paschal feels his mental game is strong and he’s improving on the course every day. “We just need to play as much as we can and keep working at it,’’ he said.
The Bulldogs shot 304 in this week’s match at King’s Grant. Paschal is confident they can improve on that number.
“If we go to the state championship and do pretty good we can have scores in the 200s,’’ he said.
Todd Edge has experienced many things during his 11 years coaching golf at Cape Fear. Now he can add a global pandemic to the list, but he’s just glad to be back on the course this season, even if the regular season is shortened.
“Because we want to play, we’re dealing with what we have to deal with,’’ Edge said. “Daily temperature checks. Daily screening. Working in small groups. We are going along with the flow.’’
Edge had expected to field an exceptionally strong team this fall, but COVID-19 resulted in a few surprises. Some of his players either opted to graduate or focus on other sports during this spring season when multiple sports are in progress.
Numbers are down across the county, Edge noted, as there are only 16 girls currently playing high school golf county-wide and five of those are on Edge’s Colt team.
“It is what it is,’’ he said.
One reason for the downturn could be the difference in the golf courses. Girls normally play their season in the fall but were moved to spring because of the pandemic and are playing at the same time as the boys.
Edge noted that in the fall, the grass is a little fluffier and lies tend to be better. During this season when the grass is still dormant, it’s harder for the girls to get a clean hit on the ball and get it airborne.
But the cupboard at Cape Fear is far from bare for Edge. Gabby Bynum, who shot an 81 in the second round of the 2019 N.C. High School Athletic Association 3-A tournament, heads the returners.
Another top prospect is former Colt softball player Kate Wilson, who has been working on her game a little over a year and has improved her chipping and putting.
Edge said his girls need to become better ball strikers. “We’ve got to play and practice more when the regionals roll around,’’ he said.
Bynum is still trying to come back from tearing two knee ligaments in a soccer match a year ago.
The injury forced her to work on her chipping and putting, but it’s left her wary of twisting her knee to get power for long drives.
She’s tried to focus on the mental game as she recovers. “If you hit a bad shot, your head can mess you up,’’ she said. “If you have the right mindset and shake it off, you focus on what you’re doing and try to do better on the next shot.’’
Nelson is glad to be on the course, even if it’s just for a four-match regular season. She said she is pleased with her driving and putting at this point.
“I’m practicing whenever I can,’’ she said. “I’m getting on the course and spending time with coach so I can really work.’’