Justin Hemings walked off The Den at Fox Creek Golf Course in Bloomington Friday, not entirely satisfied with his first-day performance at the Illinois Class 3A State Golf Tournament.
He had missed birdie putts on holes six through nine, leaving him two over par. Still, with 18 holes ahead of him, the Edwardsville senior was just two stroke back of the tournament leader and a state championship.
Beating himself up over the shots he missed was the last thing he wanted to to.
“I thought if one kid bogies a hole and I birdie, I’m right back in it,” Hemings said. “I just went in trying to stay positive. I’ve seen plenty of kids get mad at themselves and it just doesn’t help.”
He got those birdies back in the second round, including a gem on hole No. 18 that twice put the gallery in a frenzy.
With about 130-yard shot off an uphill lie, Hemings hit a pitching wedge straight toward the pin. It disappeared from his view as it landed on the green below the crest of the hill. The crowd’s cheers told him he put it where he wanted it to go.
“I heard everybody behind the green when they started screaming ‘go in, go in!’ They went crazy, so I actually thought I had holed it,” Hemings said.
It’s the same song I’ve been singing for a long time — he’s put together with character traits that match a very advanced physical and mental skill set. ... He is such a good person that to watch him grow and see him realize his dream of being the type of player he wants to be has been awesome.
Dene Schickedanz, Edwardsville golf coach
The shot actually fell three inches short of the cup, but the easy putt put him one under par 72 for the day and at plus-one final for the tournament. Just as soon as it fell the gallery told him once again what he didn’t already know — that he had all but clinched the Class 3A Illinois State Championship.
“Everybody went crazy and started yelling ‘state champ, state champ!’” said Hemings. “I was like ‘what do you mean, there are still some more groups to play.’ It turns out that when I got in I had a four shot lead and the kid behind me still had six holes left to play.”
The state title was, in fact, a dream come true for the big hitter whose passion for the game developed later than most.
Hemings was a soccer player in middle school, but growing up along one of the fairways at Sunset Hills Country Club made practice time as easy as stepping out of his back door. By the time he reached high school he was hooked and very serious about his future in the game.
“I had a young kid and his parents in a meeting before he was a freshman as he was coming into the high school,” said Edwardsville golf coach Dene Schickedanz. “They told me he wanted to play for Wake Forest, which I thought was awesome. That’s one of the top golf programs in the country and I never had a kid come in with those kinds of goals as an eighth grader.”
He started with the right body type — tall and strong with big hands — but honed his skill mainly on his own. The only formal lessons Hemming has had started late this past summer to correct a mechanical problem at the tee. He was over swinging, which forced him “out of parallel” and to push his shots to the right side of the fairway.
It was a problem he noticed during the “20-or-so” competitive tournaments he plays each summer. He turned to golf pro Bob Tays to for help and took putting advice from members of his golf club.
Both helped him find greater accuracy with his shots, which led to consistently lower scores.
309 In yards, the estimated average distance of Hemings’ tee shots, which puts him on par with the PGA heavy-hitter Dustin Johnson
“I never took a lesson until two months ago, but I started going to Bob Tays,” he said. “I struggled this summer with my driver and thought I needed to get it checked out before my senior year.”
Schickedanz said Hemings’ average drive tops 300 yards and that his consistency is much improved since his junior season.
In fact, he puts Hemings’ long-game on par with one of the heaviest hitters on the Pro Golfers Association Tour, where Hemings could one day find himself.
“You don’t want to make an outlandish statement, but I’m being honest when I tell you he’s Dustin Johnson long. That’s a fair comparison now,” Schickedanz said. “The thing is that Justin is going to grow, he’s going to get bigger and he’s going to hit longer than what he’s hitting now.
“I’ve coached kids on the PGA Tour and against kids that are professional, and Justin is just as good if not better than every one of them.”
That goal of golfing at Wake Forest may yet by in Hemings’ future. Because he was late to develop, however, he didn’t get in on early recruiting that is standard at most college programs.
Schickedanz hopes an Illinois 3A state championship will reopen some doors.
“He’s the kind of kid college coaches would want to have. He’s not selfish, he’s great for a team, and he’s a great person,” he said. “It’s the same song I’ve been singing for a long time — he’s put together with character traits that match a very advanced physical and mental skill set. It’s not just about golf for him, he’s a great student too, which is just as important for him.
“He is such a good person that to watch him grow and see him realize his dream of being the type of player he wants to be has been awesome.”