COLLINSVILLE — Every elite athlete has it. That one defining moment when average becomes good and good becomes great.
Keenai Sampson had been a very good golfer for Collinsville High School the last three years, and last October qualified for the Class 3A State Tournament in Bloomington. There he tied for 86th place.
Then it happened. A breakthrough round of 69 at the Junior PGA qualifier this summer.
"Ever since I shot 69 at the Junior PGA qualifier, something just clicked. I don't know what it was. I think I've maybe had a different mindset and a lot of it has to do with confidence,'' Sampson said last week. "I have a lot more confidence and am playing with a lot more confidence right now.''
That confidence, along with a tireless work ethic and silky, smooth golf swing, have Sampson off to a blazing start to the 2013 season.
After not winning a tournament in his first three seasons as a Kahok, Sampson has already won twice this year. Sampson shot 67 to win the Madison County Championship at Gateway National Golf Links, then fired a 69 at Effingham Country Club to win the St. Anthony Invitational.
The two wins have the soft-spoken Sampson halfway to one of his major goals for the season.
"I want to win four tournaments. I had never won one until this year and so I want to make up for the first three years where I didn't win any," said Sampson, the son of Adam and Jean Sampson, of Maryville. "To win the first one felt pretty good and it gave me confidence. It felt pretty cool because there are a lot of great players out here."
Sampson's golf schedule has been nonstop all summer.
He qualified for and competed in the Trusted Choice Big I National Championship Aug. 5-8. Held at the Country Club at North Carolina in Pinehurst N.C., the event features more then 250 of the best junior boys and girls players in the nation. With rounds of 82, 82, 76 and 72, he finished in a tie for 32nd place with a 302 score.
"I had a good summer. Basically from the middle of July, it's been nonstop,'' Sampson said. "Playing in the Big I was quite the experience. I had the one not so good day when I shot 82, but for the most part I was pleased. I played well.''
Sampson said there are many reasons for his improved play in the last year. A stronger work ethic and being in better condition and stronger are two factors.
But what it comes down to is driving, hitting, chipping and putting the golf ball. Sampson said he's doing everything better.
"I worked with Sally Collins at the Hills Golf Club at McKendree once this summer and I have a friend who is going to PGA school who gives me tips when I need them from time to time,'' Sampson said. "I think the big difference for me this year is that I'm more consistent. My ball striking is more consistent Last year, it was much more sporadic. "I don't want this to sound like I'm conceited. But I think a lot of it has to do with finally being able to shoot under par. The last couple of years, I had been close, but just wasn't able to get anything to go. This year, I'm playing the way I expect to play.''
Sampson is also playing the way Collinsville coach Dan Munoz said he expects him to play.
"Keenai's a great kid who has put in a lot of time on his game. He's off to just a great start this season,'' Munoz said. "The first two tournaments of the year, he was never in trouble. Whether he hit a fairway or not, was always on the green in regulation.
"I'm always telling the kids that you get out what you put into this sport and Keenai is proof of that. After a match or practice, he is almost always on the range or practice greens working. That's what it takes."
Sampson will be playing college golf someplace next season. He is considering Bradley, Drake and Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis.
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at 239-2661 or firstname.lastname@example.org