CHEYENNE – In a typical year, most Class 4A golf teams have played against each other at least once by the time the state tournament rolls around.
That’s not the case this year, as the precautions related to the COVID-19 pandemic have forced teams to play smaller, one-day events. Teams also have stayed closer to home, since overnight trips are also out the window.
That means what happens when the 4A state tournament tees off Friday at Three Crowns Golf Course is anyone’s guess. However, a pair of Cheyenne standouts will be in the mix on the boys side.
Cheyenne Central sophomore Caden Cunningham has the third-best scoring average in 4A at 77.5 strokes per round. Cheyenne East senior Eli Cole checks in seventh at 78.8.
Laramie’s Jackson McClaren leads the state at 76.2.
Cole has won three of the five tournaments he has been able to finish this season, and taken second in the other two. Cunningham has won two events and placed second in two others.
Cunningham did not make Central’s state tournament team last fall, but improved by leaps and bounds over the past year.
“He has come a long way from fall to fall,” Indians coach Mike Lepore said. “We would have seen a little bit of this if we had had a spring season, but he really made good use of his time. He played in a lot of competitive events and figured out what he needed to do to be good.”
Cunningham hit the driving range and practice areas as much as a guy without a driver’s license could. He also spent time on YouTube watching videos of professional golfers breaking down their technique and approaches.
“I learned how they approached courses, how they hit certain shots, and I tried to adapt that to my game,” Cunningham said. “I learned how to play those shots, and I started executing them.”
Cunningham has improved most on approach shots and around the green. He is far more comfortable with his clubs than he was this time last year.
“You have to sit out there on the (driving) range for hours, and then you’ll learn your clubs as you go,” he said. “It took me about a year to get used to my irons.
“I would go hit a bucket of balls whenever I could to get that muscle memory of where to hit it and how to hit certain shots down. That has helped me a lot.”
Like many boys high school golfers, Cunningham can crush the ball off the tee. The difference is he knows where it’s going to end up, Lepore said. Cunningham also has another trait many high school golfers don’t possess.
“He has a short memory,” Lepore said. “If he has a bad hole, he forgets about it and moves on. A lot of high-schoolers will get a six or seven, and they’ll get so wrapped up in it that it turns into another six or seven. By the time they’re done, they have a big number on their card.
“He can get wrapped up in it occasionally, but he does a pretty good job of forgetting about bad holes. That has helped him a lot.”
Cole split 10th at last year’s 4A state tournament, finishing the two-round tournament at 23-over-par at Bell Nob Golf Course in Gillette.
The biggest difference between Cole’s junior and senior campaigns has been close to the green.
“My short game is better than it has ever been,” he said. “I’ve been able to scramble and save a lot of pars or scramble and get some birdies. That’s helped me finish near the top all year.”
What Cole has done on the green has been even more important. Cole is a notoriously fast player, and that extended to putting.
“He is usually flying around the course at 1,000 miles per hour,” East assistant Todd Oswald said. “He walks up to his ball, slams it and goes to the next shot. We wanted him to slow down, especially on the greens.
“We wanted him to look things over and make sure he knows what he’s seeing before he strikes it.”
Cole now looks at his putts from multiple angles before addressing the ball. It wasn’t an easy transition, but it has been helpful.
“The first tournament we played this year, I was not confident in my putting whatsoever,” Cole said. “The more the season has gone on, the more I’ve been able to get used to slowing down, the better I’ve putted and the more confident I’ve gotten.
“I’ve been able to putt well, and I feel like I’m ready for state.”
Cole has a strong case for being the hardest-working player on East’s roster, Oswald said. However, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy himself on the course. Cunningham describes him as a lot of fun to play with, and says he smiles whenever he is grouped with Cole.
Cole is happy that’s how he is viewed by his peers.
“I want to win, but I try to have fun no matter what,” he said. “You can’t win every tournament you play in, but you can find ways to enjoy your rounds.”
On the course
Cheyenne’s high school cross-country teams host their third meet of the fall at 10 a.m. Friday at North Cheyenne Community Park.
Pine Bluffs-Burns will run at the Rawlins Invitational on Friday.
On the courts
District play for volleyball starts today when Cheyenne Central visits Cheyenne South for a 6 p.m. start. Cheyenne East plays at Laramie at 6 tonight.
South plays at East at 6 p.m. Friday, while Central hosts Laramie at 6 p.m.
South plays at Rock Springs at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Rawlins visits Burns at 4 p.m. Friday in Class 3A action. Burns plays at Torrington at noon Saturday.
Pine Bluffs visits Glenrock at 3 p.m. Saturday.
The state’s tennis teams start postseason play Friday. Central, East and South play at the South Regional in Green River.
In the pool
East visits Central at 4 p.m. today.