Hardman wins Masters

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 29, 2014

CHINA GROVE — Matt Hardman’s summer vacation is off to a headline-grabbing start.

A rising senior at Catawba, he navigated about 400 miles to become the first non-county resident to win the Rowan Masters this weekend.

“Any time you win it’s a good feeling,” the 21-year-old said Sunday at The Warrior Golf Club, where he outlasted Justin Lefler 1-up in the championship round. “This was tough. First you qualify, then you have to win two matches every day. It’s a lot of golf.”

For Hardman — a native of Gettysburg, Pa. — it was a lot of good golf. He qualified as medalist last weekend with a 5-under 66, then pushed aside five of the area’s top challengers.

“I’ve always been able to score well on this golf course,” he said afterward, wearing the job-well-done look of a weary champion. “Today I just took advantage of everything I had.”

So did Lefler, the 30-year-old West Rowan grad who qualified with an 81 and entered the tournament seeded 29th. His path to the final took him past doubles partner Jared Barnette, 13th-seeded Sean Kramer, fifth-seeded Andrew Morgan and — in a 19-hole semifinal Sunday morning — Kannapolis resident Brandon Phillips.

“When I got here I didn’t think I’d get by the first guy I played,” said Lefler, a first-time finalist. “But right now I’m happy with what I’ve got.”

Hardman got the hardware, first by ousting six-time champ Keith Dorsett, 2 & 1, in the morning semis. Both golfers played with precision and efficiency. Hardman finished 6-under par with seven birdies — five on the front nine. Dorsett came in at 5-under following a breathtaking chase to the finish line.

“He got up on me early. I was five down through 12,” Dorsett reported. “Then I birdied 13, 14 and 15 to climb back in. But I never caught him. I didn’t put enough pressure on him early.”

Lefler, meanwhile, rallied to win the final two holes to beat Phillips. “It went back-and-forth,” Phillips said. “It came down to the 19th hole. He birdied and I left a 14-footer about 3 inches short.”

It set the stage for an old blood/new blood showdown in the final.

Lefter grabbed the early edge when his approach on No. 1 narrowly cleared a menacing bunker on the left side. Two strokes later he birdied the hole, putting Hardman in a deficit for the first time all weekend.

“It got in my head a little bit,” Hardman revealed. “In match play you don’t necessarily worry about about going down early. You just don’t want to fall out of (reach). I really wasn’t that worried about it. There were still 17 holes of golf left.”

By the third hole, the deficit was erased. Hardman referenced “a good up-and-down out of the sand trap on three” before sinking a 10-foot putt for par while Lefler misfired on a 6-footer that broke off below the hole.

“I missed some opportunities,” Lefler said. “I missed some putts I should have made. I also made some good putts.”

The momentum swayed to Hardman’s corner when he birdied both the par-5, 513-yard fourth hole and the par-3, 175-yard third. Lefler inched back within a hole with a 12-foot putt for birdie on No. 9.

“That was a great shot,” Hardman conceded. “But I still didn’t have any strategy for the last nine. I just wanted to keep it at one or two-up and put the pressure on him.”

Hardman made a shot out of the trees en route to a birdie on No. 10, then bogeyed at 11 and 16 as Leftler drew even. Both golfers missed putts for birdie on 17 — first Hardman from 20 feet and then Lefler from 8 — squandering chances to move ahead. “I dodged a huge bullet there,” Hardman explained.

And so it came down to the par-4 18th, a pristine 397-yard hole with a green framed by Lake Wright. After Lefler — the rugged, working-man’s man — left his approach shot just 8 feet short, Hardman paused and surveyed his situation.

“The ball was sitting in my court,” Hardman said. “That right there is why you practice.”

Hardman then made the shot-of-the-day when he lofted a 64-yard wedge shot that settled just inches from the cup.

Putting for birdie, Lefler steered his ball just wide. Hardman’s tap-in, his sixth birdie of the match, settled it.

“I got beat by a guy who had to make birdie to beat me,” said the good-natured Lefler. “That was my rule coming in. And he did it — he made birdie. I have no problem with that.”

Neither should the rest of Rowan County’s golfers.