KEWADIN – Max VanderMolen has been the youngest or the first to do a lot of things in golf and the 14-year-old from Richland did it again.
He won the 44th Michigan Junior State Amateur presented by the Rocket Tour Thursday at A-Ga-Ming Golf Resort’s Sundance course by fighting off Kewadin’s Josh Lavely, the son of Larry Lavely, A-Ga-Ming’s golf professional and the local favorite, in a tense 21-hole final match.
Lavely’s shot to the par 3 No. 3 hole, the third sudden-death playoff hole, flew the green into long grass. He played to bogey missing a nine-foot par putt, and VanderMolen was champion after hitting his 5-iron 180 yards to eight feet and two-putting for par.
VanderMolen became the youngest winner of the championship and the first to win the 15-and-under bracket and then follow it up by winning the overall title the next year. He was 13 when he won the 15-and-under at TPC Michigan a year ago.
“I played up (in age division) because you know, I won last year, and I felt like I had already proved myself,” he said. “So I was like, let’s give it ago. I knew it was going to be tougher with the state’s top players here. I mean, this means a lot to beat some great players like Josh and be the champion.”
A new 15-and-under champion was crowned Thursday, too. Leandro Pinili of Rochester Hills, 15, topped Isaac Scavarda of Kalamazoo 5 and 4 in the title match for the younger division.
Lavely, the 2020 Michigan PGA Junior Champion who is headed to Villanova University in the fall on a golf scholarship, said it was a great week despite the final match result.
“I got a lot of support from my family and friends here and it was nice having everyone out there watching me, rooting me on,” he said. “You know, in the end I gave it my all, and you know Max is a great player and he hit a lot of great shots under pressure at the end.”
VanderMolen, who at age 10 was the youngest to ever qualify for the Michigan Junior State Amateur, finished second in the National Drive, Chip and Putt Finals at Augusta National at age 11 and at 13 was the youngest to ever made the 36-hole cut at the Michigan Open Championship, said he felt the nerves and did his best to block out what was at stake.
“Especially when we got to the playoff and Josh was putting the pressure on me with great shots like the one on the second playoff hole to like eight feet from the weeds,” he said. “I thought he had me there. The pins were tough all day, and I was just trying to execute each shot. I hit a really good one on the last playoff hole.”
VanderMolen also hit a clutch shot on No. 17 in regulation play to tie the match. He said he hit 7-iron to about four feet on a back right hole placement.
“My irons were great all week,” he said. “I work on them the most, they are my favorite thing to work on and some people might be critical of that, but it paid off for me this week because I’m confident with them. I hit some great iron shots to win a lot of tough matches.”
He called the win his biggest tournament accomplishment.
“It means a lot and I want to win more tournaments, get an AJGA win under my belt and keep reaching my goals,” he said.
Pinili said his win in the 15-and-under division was his top accomplishment, too.
“The last two years I wasn’t able to make match play and that really upset me,” he said. “I really wanted to make match play and then I played really well throughout the whole week and got the job done.”
The sophomore-to-be at Birmingham Brother Rice High closed out his title match win with consecutive birdies.
“I was 3-under in the match,” he said. “I was tired but hitting good shots. This is my first GAM win and first win of the year, so it’s big for me.”
The final matches were set up by morning semifinals in which VanderMolen topped Justin Sui of Lake Orion 2-up, and Lavely beat Peter Stassinopoulos of Novi 3 and 2.
Pinili got to the final in the 15-and-under bracket with a semifinal win over Cooper Reitsma of Ada in 20 holes, and Scavarda earned his spot with a 3 and 2 win over Kameron Knox of New Hudson.