Local golf: Rare albatross keys Owen’s victory in Rowan Masters

Published 1:19 pm Monday, July 1, 2024


William Little tees off, as Chris Owen watches.

Final Four; Landon Merrell, William Little, Chris Owen, Jaden Sprinkle.


By Mike London

CHINA GROVE — The Warrior Golf Club opened for business on a July day 25 years ago — five par threes, nine par fours, and four par fives, a par 71 layout from the championship tees, with no shortage of pleasant scenery, water, trees and rolling terrain.

Something happened on Sunday that never had happened in 25 years of golf at Warrior, certainly not in a tournament setting.

Chris Owen, an affable 48-year-old famed locally for hitting it as straight as anyone, made an albatross and won the Rowan Masters, 1-up, over William Little.

If you’ve never heard of an albatross on a golf course, don’t be alarmed. That’s because they don’t happen.

Well, they do happen, but they happen so rarely that even a professional golfer has a better chance to be struck by lightning than to record an albatross on his scorecard. Estimates are that there’s one albatross made for every six million rounds of golf that are played.

Albatrosses are referred to as double eagles by many, although that doesn’t make a lot of sense. An eagle on a hole is 2-under par, so a double eagle, logically, would be 4-under. That would require a hole-in-one on a par-5. That’s never happened in the history of the world.

Albatrosses are 3-under on a hole — a hole-in-one on a par-4 or making a two on a par-5. Owen made a two on the 505-yard, par-5 17th at Warrior, and it turned almost certain defeat into the greatest individual victory of his long career.

Gene Sarazen made the most famous albatross in golf history in 1935 during the final round of the second Masters played at Augusta National Golf Club. Sarazen’s desperate second shot on the par-5 15th barely cleared a water hazard, skipped onto the green and rolled straight into the cup. It was known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” because Sarazen suddenly vaulted into a tie for the lead. He won a playoff with Craig Wood the next day, taking home a trophy and $1,500.

Sunday’s trophy presentation may have meant as much to Owen as did to Sarazen 89 years ago.

“I won the Labor Day Four-Ball (in 2012) with Ken Clarke, and that tournament is the biggest in Rowan County and has been around the longest, but this was maybe even more special because I had to rely on myself on every shot for five rounds,” Owen said. “Fifty guys played qualifying rounds, and the low 31 qualified, along with the defending champion. Those qualifying scores were the best I can remember. This may have been the best field they’ve had for this tournament. So right now, I’m just tickled pink.”

Owen is an accomplished golfer. While he’s lost a few yards off the tee over the years, he compensates with accuracy and shot-making. He’s won club championships at Warrior and the Country Club of Salisbury.

“Chris is as solid as they come,” said Little, a long-driving 33-year-old who was a worthy runner-up. “You can’t give Chris an inch because he makes almost no mistakes. He’s right there on every hole, gives himself a chance to birdie a lot of holes.”

But Owen had some struggles in qualifying. He shot 76. That got him in the field of 32 as the No. 25 seed.

“In that qualifying round, I was all over the place,” Owen said. “I didn’t hit a green (in regulation) until No. 7, and I was only able to get up and down four times. Still, I kept telling myself that I had done well enough to be in the tournament, and once you’re in, almost anything can happen. Then it’s just one match at a time.”

Last Wednesday, Owen bought himself a new putter.

“Brian Lee (Warrior golf pro) saw me out there practicing on Thursday, still in my work clothes, and he told me, ‘Practice makes champions,'” Owen said. “I was hoping he was right. I took that to heart.”

Owen’s first match was expected to be challenging. Hank Robins, well-known for golf at Salisbury High and Lenoir-Rhyne, was the 8 seed and had qualified with an even-par 71. But Owen got past that first hurdle with few issues.

That put Owen in a Saturday morning Round of 16 match against Tyler Kepley, a recent West Rowan graduate who was a state qualifier and who is headed to Pfeiffer University. That was an emotional match, as Kepley was a teammate of McGwire Owen, Chris’ son, on a championship team at West. Chris Owen helped coach that team.

“I told Tyler to take it easy on Coach,” Owen said with a laugh. “But Tyler can pound it, and he was putting it way out there past me off the tee. I got used to hitting my second shot first every time. That was a very tough match.”

It wasn’t settled until the 17th, but Owen was able to advance to the Saturday afternoon quarterfinals. His next opponent was defending champion Michael Swaringen, the No. 1 seed.

“Michael can put it in another gear when he’s in a tight match,” Owen said. “He’s a tough competitor, and I was behind the whole match until the 15th.”

Owen pulled out a 1-up victory.

Heading into Sunday, the Final Four was Owen, Little and recent East Rowan graduates Jaden Sprinkle and Landon Merrell.

Little topped Merrell, 3 and 2, while Owen came from two holes down to eliminate Sprinkle, 2 and 1, in the semifinals.

“Five matches in three days is a tough grind for anyone,” Owen said. “You’re going to play close to 90 holes in 90-degree temperatures. I thought the young guys might have the advantage in the heat, but then it came down to me and Will Little.”

The 10th-seeded Little had an interesting journey of his own to get to the final.

“I went to extra holes in the first round,” Little said. “If I don’t pull that one out, none of this happens. And then I played Kevin Lentz in the second round. They don’t come any tougher than Kevin.”

Little nearly made an albatross of his own on the 514-yard first hole of the championship match.

“Three or four inches behind the hole on my second shot,” Little said. “That close.”

Little had a tap-in eagle and a quick lead. On the second par-5 on the front, No. 4, Little boosted his lead to two holes with a birdie.

“Will just crushes it off the tee, and he’s going 60, 70 yards past me,” Owen said. “I figure he’s going to birdie every par-5. You just have to hope he doesn’t make eagles.”

Owen won the 5th hole with a birdie. The golfers halved the next four holes, and Little took a 1-up lead to the turn.

Owen made his only bogey of the round on the 10th. Little won it with a par and went 2-up.

Owen came right back to win the 11th with a birdie and the par-3 12th with a par. Now the match was level.

Undaunted, Little birdied two par-4s, the 14th and 15th, to take another 2-up lead.

Owen won the par-3 16th with a par. So he was down a hole heading to the fateful 17th.

“Going into the match, I figured that I absolutely had to be ahead going to 17, because 17 was going to be a sure birdie for Will, but there I was going to 17, and I’m down a hole,” Owen said. “It doesn’t look great for me. Making a 2 on 17 never crossed my mind, but I was thinking that I would need an eagle to win that hole. That’s what I was going for — an eagle. Put it on the green in two and at least have a look at a putt for an eagle. That was the plan.”

Little played that hole well. He would have at least birdied it, and he had a putt for eagle that became moot.

Owen had hit one of his best drives of the summer. He was 213 yards from the flagstick, and he pulled the long-shafted 4 Hybrid club out of his bag. He struck it firm and knew it looked good. Then he watched it bounce, skip and then roll toward the hole.

And then it went in.

Owen has made four holes-in-one in his career, three of them last year, but this was the first albatross.

“Considering the circumstances, down a hole on No. 17 of the Rowan Masters, the biggest shot I’ve ever had,” Owen said.

So they were tied going to the 18th. Owen, who shot 66, parred the closing hole to win the match and his first Rowan Masters championship.

Walking off the 18th green was the only time Owen held the lead. It will be a memorable championship match. Maybe the shot heard ’round the county, something like that.

Little lost the last three holes, but he was philosophical about it. After all, it hadn’t been a case of him losing it. Owen definitely won it.

“Being a father, having kids, I can keep it in perspective, and I know what’s most important,” Little said. “I love to compete on the golf course, but it’s not everything. A really good golfer made a great shot to beat me, and that’s the truth. Watching that ball roll in on 17, it did kind of hurt, but at the same time I could be excited for Chris making a shot like that.”

In the heat and under pressure, Owen made five bogeys in five rounds — spaced out one per round.

A lot of fellow competitors called to congratulate Owen. Swaringen called him right away when he heard the result, one champion passing the baton to another.

“This was the tournament that I thought I’d never win,” said Owen, who celebrated quietly at Dairy Queen. “It was one crazy weekend.”

And one crazy albatross.


First round 


(1) Michael Swaringen d. (32) Patrick Gregg, 6 and 5

(17) Tanner Frye d. (16) Daniel Walsh, default

(25) Chris Owen d. (8) Hank Robins, 6 and 4

(9) Tyler Kepley d. (24) Jared Barnette, 3 and 2

(4) Chad Frye d. (29) Justin Taylor, 20 holes

(13) Jaden Sprinkle d. (20) Brandon Phillips, 3 and 2

(5) Ken Knowles d. (28) Brayden Mulkey, 4 and 3

(12) Sean Kramer d. (21) Ricky Adams, 2 and 1


(2) Derek Lipe d. (31) Kenneth Lanier, 6 and 5

(15) Justin Lefler d. (18) Luke Nelson, 2-up

(7) Kevin Lentz  d. (26) Curt Thomas, default

(10) William Little d. (23) Ross Brown, 19 holes

(30) Chris Harte d. (3) Eric Edwards, 19 holes

(14) Keith Dorsett d. (19) Jamie Phillips, 6 and 5

(6) Landon Merrell d. (27) Scott Fagg, 7 and 5

(11) Cade Cranfield d. (22) Dan Hurd, 19 holes


Second round, early Saturday

(1) Michael Swaringen d. (17) Tanner Frye, 3 and 2

(25) Chris Owen d. (9) Tyler Kepley, 3 and 1

 (13) Jaden Sprinkle d. (4) Chad Frye, 3 and 2

(5) Ken Knowles vs. (12) Sean Kramer, 5 and 3


 (15) Justin Lefler d. (2) Derek Lipe, 3 and 2

 (10) William Little d. (7) Kevin Lentz, 2 and 1

(14) Keith Dorsett d. (30) Chris Harte, 7 and 5

(6) Landon Merrell d. (11) Cade Cranfield, 2 and 1


Quarterfinals, late Saturday

(25) Chris Owen d. (1) Michael Swaringen, 1-up

(13) Jaden Sprinkle d. (5) Ken Knowles, 3 and 2

(10) William Little d. (15) Justin Lefler, 6 and 5

(6) Landon Merrell d. (14) Keith Dorsett, 3 and 2


Semifinals, early Sunday

(25) Chris Owen d. (13) Jaden Sprinkle, 2 and 1

(10) William Little d. (6) Landon Merrell, 3 and 2


Championship, Sunday afternoon

(25) Chris Owen d. (10) William Little, 1-up



Rowan Masters champions       

2003 — Keith Dorsett

2004 -—Gary Miller

2005 —Keith Dorsett

2006 —Keith Dorsett

2007 — Keith Dorsett

2008 — Ronnie Eidson

2009 — Ronnie Eidson

2010 — Keith Dorsett

2011 — Keith Dorsett

2012 — Keith Dorsett

2013 — Phil Miller

2014 — Matt Hardman

2015 — Matt Hardman

2016 — Andrew Purcell

2017 — Keith Dorsett

2018 — No tournament (renovations)

2019 — Nick Lyerly

2020—  Nick Lyerly

2021 — Nick Lyerly

2022 — Nick Lyerly

2023 — Michael Swaringen

2024 — Chris Owen