By Conor Walsh Correspondent
Gloucester Daily Times
---- — Larry O’Neill had lofty expectations for his team when it teed off in last Monday’s Division 1 North sectional golf tournament.
One score, however, caused even the long-time St. John’s Prep coach to take a step back.
James Turner. 71.
“I was putting the scores up on the board while other coaches checked the scorecards, and when I heard his name and I heard 71, I was pleasantly surprised,” O’Neill said. “I looked at him and just saw him smile.”
It was a banner moment for the 14-year-old Gloucester native, a self-taught golf junkie who burst onto the scene as a freshman for the Eagles this season and paced their Division 1 North championship.
He’d been a solid contributor for the Eagles throughout the regular season, wrapping up the regular season as the team’s sixth-best scorer which, for a team as talented as the Eagles, is a feat itself.
But few saw Turner’s round at Haverhill’s Bradford Country Club coming. His one-over-par 71 was the low score for the Eagles and fourth-best in the tournament, pushing St. John’s Prep to a runaway victory. Turner combined with Brandon Bingel (75), Steven Dilisio (76) and Josh Wingardner (79) to produce the Eagles’ impressive 301 team score.
Central Catholic, the runner-up, fired a 312.
“He’s really been a great addition to the team both in terms of personality and his play,” O’Neill said. “He’s been a big surprise to us. I know I met him at open house last spring and he told me he was a golfer and he played at Bass Rocks, but I didn’t know how good he might be.”
It was another freshman, Swampscott’s Dilisio, that was considered the jewel of O’Neill’s incoming freshman class.
And while Dilisio, who’s won the Massachusetts Junior Amateur three times, has lived up to his hype, Turner’s been a welcome surprise for the Eagles.
In a golf world driven by lessons, swing coaches and drills, though, Turner breaks the mold. He’s never had a lesson, instead learning the game on his own around Cape Ann, usually at Gloucester’s Bass Rocks Golf Club.
“He’s only a 14-year-old freshman, but his attitude on the course is all business,” O’Neill said. “He doesn’t let a bad shot shake him up, he doesn’t try to make up for a bad shot on the next shot. I don’t think he’s ever taken a lesson, so he’s grown up with the game and learned it himself.”
Turner carries himself with a steadiness and poise well-beyond his years. Despite his relatively small stature when compared to many of his older opponents, he’s got surprising length off the tee.
He’s accurate, hitting fairways and greens alike. And he can putt.
It all came together for Turner when he made the turn onto the back 9 last week. He came off the ninth green frustrated, sitting at three-over in the whipping winds at Bradford that day.
The countless rounds in the winds of Bass Rocks helped, to be sure.
“He was three-over at that point, which he was discouraged by,” O’Neill said. “But I told him the wind was hurting everyone’s scoring. I just told him he was doing fine and just to play it shot-by-shot over the last nine.”
Turner did just that. He knocked in a 7-iron from 150 yards for eagle on the 15th hole and added another birdie during his impressive two-under-par performance over the final nine holes.
Now, the trick for Turner and the Eagles will be to harness the success they enjoyed last week when they tee off at Norton Country Club for Monday’s Division 1 State Championship, which was postponed from this Monday because of Hurricane Sandy.
They’ve already played a practice round in Norton, and will play the course again on Sunday before Monday’s tournament, so the Eagles will be familiar with the course.
They have the experience of stroke play at their disposal, as all-but one of St. John’s Prep’s 18 regular season matches were played in a stroke play format, as opposed to the standard match play format of most local high schools.
“It’s nice for us,” O’Neill said. “You’re used to every shot counting and having to putt out. I think that’s something that helps.”
The Eagles will be without O’Neill, however, when they take on the likes of BC High, St. John’s Shrewsbury and Shrewsbury High for the Division 1 crown. O’Neill will undergo knee replacement surgery tomorrow, having originally scheduled the surgery for three days after the end of the season before the hurricane thwarted his plans.
But if Turner can flirt with par again, the Eagles stand as good a chance as anyone to take home the hardware, with or without their coach.
“It’s a one-shot deal,” O’Neill said. “I feel good about our chances, but the best team doesn’t always win, as I know after 30 some years of doing this. It’s just going to depend on who has that good day on Monday, who makes the fewest mistakes, but any one of our six can shoot a low round.”