Coming up the 18th green at the 1A/2A North Carolina High School Athletic Association Women’s Golf Championship last week in Pinehurst, 80 fans cheered on the top high school golfers on the final hole of the tournament.
While nerve-wracking, the extra attention did not sway Elkin senior Annika Winebarger, even while perched behind a tree.
Winebarger, leading two-time defending state champion Isabella Rusher by a stroke, calmly fired a “perfect” shot from behind the trees onto the green that landed within seven feet of the hole.
The senior then took a two deep breaths and sank the championship birdie putt that secured the individual title.
“Coming into the last three holes, we were neck-and-neck. We got onto the last hole and there was at least 80 people waiting on the 18th green,” Winebarger recalled. “I had hit my driver right behind a tree so I had a tree going towards the green. I told myself to take two deep breaths and just do it. It went right through the trees and landed seven feet from the hole. I made the birdie putt from there. I didn’t know I won when I was walking off the green, but people were telling me I did.
“I was shaking,” she added, referring to the final putt. “I was like ‘please just make it, please just make it.’ I just wanted it to drop in. I knew that I was leading by a stroke or she was leading by a stroke.”
The final birdie putt gave Winebarger a total score of 151 (74, 77), that was good enough to unseat Rusher for the state crown. Rusher and Elkin teammate Mary Frances Hall carded a 154 to tie for second place.
“On the first day, I was trying to shoot in the 70s. I ended up finishing with a 74 and when I got back in realized I was actually leading this thing by a stroke,” she explained. “I was beating the girl that won the last two years by one stroke.
“I was so nervous going into second day,” she continued. “I kept getting all these pep talks from my family and friends and they told me to just go out there and have fun because it’s your last high school event. So I went out there and was trying not to think about her score.”
The individual crown was the culmination of four years of hard work and dedication for Winebarger, who said she focused more on the mental aspect of the game this season.
“I worked really hard over the summer. At this time last year, I was not shooting what I am now. This is just a big accomplishment for me for working really hard over the summer and during the season,” she said. “I worked on the mental game and putting. If you don’t have the right mind, you can’t go out there and get mad at yourself and be down. You have to get over and say ‘I can get this; I can birdie the next hole.’”
Winebarger and Hall, the decorated Elkin duo who finished 1-2 at every tournament this season en route to the state championship, capped their high school careers atop the leader board once again.
“We’ve grown up together and we’ve been best friends since we were little,” Winebarger explained, looking back. “When we started, we were about the same and got the same scores. But as we got older, Mary Frances was getting better. Freshman and sophomore year, she was about three or four strokes better than me. Junior year, I came up a little bit and we were close.
“This year,” she continued. “We have been like back-to-back-to-back. Mary Frances helps me and we’re good competition for each other — we push each other.”
Behind the pair’s final 1-2 finish, the Lady Elks finished third in the final team standings, just two strokes behind second-place Croatan. Salisbury raced away with its third-straight team title.
First-year golfer Palmer Duncan shot a 228 to round out Elkin’s scorers.
“We were really excited that Palmer got to come to states with us. This is her first year playing golf and for her to shoot what she did, I think it’s really great,” Winebarger said. “I think the third-place finish represents Elkin a lot. Elkin is a small town that you don’t really hear much about. I feel like it can help out publicity for the school and the team.”
Fresh off the state championship, Winebarger already has secured her plans to play golf at the next level. The senior will sign her official letter of intent to play for Catawaba College later this month.
“I am signing in two weeks to play at Catawba. Mary Frances is thinking about playing at Washington and Lee, but she’s not really sure yet,” she said.
“It was all just really exciting,” Winebarger continued. “It still hasn’t hit me yet. Some past champions have told me congratulations and welcomed me to the club — The Club.”
Reach Matthew Gorry at 835-1513 or email@example.com.