DAYTON — Frustration mounted a bit for Jaren Fritz during the first round of the 2A state golf tournament at Kendrick Golf Course. The Tongue River High School golfer missed the fairway right on the drivable par-4 fifth hole; his dad told him to just go out and have fun playing golf. Fritz duffed a chip short of the green on his very next shot.
No worries. Fritz finished the hole, smiled and fist-bumped a competitor who chipped in from the fringe on the same green.
Fritz went on to shoot a 94 on the day — 22-over par and 11 strokes behind the Wyoming 2A leader.
No worries. Another day awaited. Eighteen more holes stood between Fritz, his competitors and the end of the 2017 season. And a state championship.
Then, poor weather swooped over the mountains into Sheridan. The already-postponed tournament was no stranger to weather-related challenges — last year’s state tournament was cut short, and snow pushed the Friday-Saturday 2017 tournament to Monday-Tuesday.
Plus, this is a game that involves whacking a 1.6-ounce dimpled sphere hundreds of feet through the air. Wind certainly adds difficulty. Swinging a club begins to sting as the hands become chapped.
No worries. Fritz had a tournament to win. He actually rooted for poor weather.
“On the first couple holes, you couldn’t even see,” Fritz said. “I had my hood on, my rain coat; I had to look down when I was walking because it was so bad. And I was just praying that it was coming down harder because I knew other kids wouldn’t be tough enough to play through it.”
There’s a lyric by the rapper Jadakiss that says, “I’m not cocky, I’m confident. So when you tell me I’m the best, it’s a compliment.” Fritz might as well have blared that through the public address system at Kendrick Golf Course as he marched to the first tee box on day two.
He expected to win before the start of round one. He finished 11 strokes back, so he had to make up that ground the next day — he still expected to win.
So he shrugged off the distractions — the previous day’s score, the blunder at the fifth hole, the other blunders, the weather. That 94 plummeted; he was seven strokes better under worse conditions.
Only 12 of 41 golfers bettered their scores in the second round — another was fellow Eagle Nick Summers.
Of those other 29 competitors, many hung around the top of the leaderboard as Fritz made his climb. As they trickled into the club house, it became clear that the day wasn’t over.
Fritz had done enough to force a playoff with Lovell’s Brenen Hinckley, who dropped 11 strokes in round two. The day-one leader, Moorcroft’s Caleb Connally, tumbled to fifth behind a 24-stroke fall in the second round.
So how did Fritz react? Other than a quick call to his coach — who was out on the course following the Tongue River girls team — Fritz got right back to work.
“I was like, ‘Hey, I need you,’” Fritz recalled of his chat with his coach prior to the playoff. “He thought something bad happened, and I was like, ‘Well, I’m about to win a state championship.”
Fritz and Hinckley went stroke-for-stroke on the first playoff hole — the 18th. The Tongue River golfer had a 15-foot putt to win the hole and missed it by no less than the width of a dime. Tap in. Tie. Another playoff hole — the 17th.
Fritz smashed a drive. His second shot, though, shanked off the club and ricocheted off the fairway. Hinckley, meanwhile, put his second shot up close to the green.
Fritz turned his mishit into an excellent third shot, and set himself for the game-winner most athletes only dream about.
“I had like a 30-foot putt, downhill, huge curver,” Fritz recalled enthusiastically. “I lined it up, and then it went big bend and it dropped in from like 30 feet out. He was probably like, ‘Oh, crap.’”
Hinckley missed a 10-foot putt, and Fritz walked away champion.
“I’ve never seen a kid be so in the moment,” Griffin said. “It’s just like you would say for Joe Montana or Tom Brady. Not in the scale of his performance, but in the ice water of his veins. He just believes he’s going to do it.”
The ice water required buildup, though.
Just a couple years ago, Fritz was so far from the top of the leader board he even poked a bit of fun at himself. He shot a 129-over par 273 in 2015, placing him 46th — third from the bottom.
A year later, Fritz shaved 131 strokes off his state score — a 102 to take 15th as the tournament was cut short due to weather issues.
It all came down to belief and the desire to be better than the 45 players ahead of him that first year. He lived at the golf course and the driving range. When the course was closed, he asked his coach how he could practice. When the team bus left the golf course each evening, Fritz stayed — more drives, more chips, more putts.
Those drives, chips and putts equaled lower scores. They equaled a state title.
“‘So you’re saying, if I work hard, I can win a state championship?’ Yes, I am saying that,” Griffin said in a mock-conversation with his players. “I’m saying that if you work hard, you’re willing to give up whatever it takes to get to that point, you will win.”
Fritz did what it took.
Griffin pointed out that it doesn’t always equate to a state championship — he said Summers worked just as hard as Fritz, which made both of them better. But some form of success typically comes with the added effort. And at the end of the day, Fritz, Summers and the members of the Tongue River golf team got better because they wanted to.
“We got a lot of support from the kids who think golf is cool now,” Fritz said. “We kind of brought back the coolness of golf at Tongue River.”