Going for the green

Blake Swofford in no “weekend hacker;” in fact he’s far from it. At the age of 14, he’s become a better golfer than most CEO’s and dentists could ever dream to be.

While the hardest thing to do in sports is hit a baseball, most people consider golf to be the hardest sport to become good at. It’s not hard for Swofford, though. The Vandalia High School freshman said that the game just came naturally to him.

When Swofford’s grandfather first introduced the game to him at the age of 8 or 9, it didn’t take much for him to pick it up rather quickly. Hitting balls from a tee station set up at his grandfather’s home was all it took to get him started.  A lot of golfers spend years and thousands of dollars on golf lessons and spring-loaded contraptions to get their swing just right. Swofford didn’t take his first lesson until a year ago and picks up the occasional tip in a golf magazine or on television.

He’s not your run-of-the-mill golfer, and that’s plain to see. At about 5 feet, 9 inches tall and thin as the flag stick, Swofford doesn’t look like one of the best athletes at Vandalia High. On the golf course, he thinks that most people overlook him, something that they shouldn’t do. He plays at the same skill level as a lot of juniors and seniors, and in most cases, he wins.

“Most of the kids I played with this summer were seniors,” Swofford said. “They were all bigger most of the time. They probably didn’t think I’d do as good as I did.”

But when he did separate himself from the pack with his play, they all agreed that he has a lot of potential.

Swofford first started to realize his talent several years ago at a tournament in Springfield. With a field of more than 100 golfers his age, he placed third. For the last three or four years he’s tried to play in a handful of tournaments each summer. While some of his scores early on were nothing to brag about, his finishes of late are striking.

In 12 tournaments this fall, Swofford was the top finisher for the Vandals 10 times. His other two finishes were a second-place finish at Greenville and a third-place finish at Spencer T. Olin.

“I didn’t think I would do as good as I did,” he said.

He was a medalist five times and was named all-conference at the end of the season. All-conference honors didn’t come as that big of a surprise to him, as he was sure his consistency at the top of the leader boards and against the older kids in the conference would net him some postseason awards.

Although golf is regarded as an individual sport at the professional level, in high school and college it’s all about the team and the school. For the most part, Vandalia had a pretty good season. The Vandals placed first four times and finished with a record of 10-8.

At the Nokomis Regional last month, Vandalia placed second with a score of 342 and Swofford carded a team-low 77. Vandalia’s season would come to an end 10 days later with an 11th place finish at the Havana Sectional. The Vandals shot a 360.

Swofford was pleased with his and the team’s performances this year, but is already thinking ahead to the next couple of seasons. What worries him most is the number of players graduating and the lack of players in the pipeline. Every once in a while he catches himself thinking about his own future and progression. At the conference meet at the end of the year, he was surrounded by juniors and seniors on the leader board and thoughts of where he could be in three years began to swirl in his head.

With the roster of the team still up the air, Swofford will just have to focus on his own game. Like in all sports, natural talent can only take you so far. At some point, you hit a wall and have to improve based on practice and what you have learned. Swofford knows he still has room to improve. During the spring and summer months, Swofford is on the course two or three times a week. And when he can’t make it out to the course, he gets in some practice in his yard hitting balls, trying to perfect his swing and build it into his muscle memory.

“You get to a certain point where, if you want to be the best you have to have a little of both and work really hard at it,” Swofford said. “I hit lots and lots of balls in the yard and just hit and hit and hit.”

The jump from junior to senior high school can bring on a lot of pressure and stress, but you wouldn’t know it to look at Swofford. He’s just as cool and relaxed in the hallways of VCHS as he is on the fairways at Vandalia Country Club. He says there’s very little stress on him while on the course.

“It really depends on who puts pressure on you and if you put pressure on yourself,” Swofford said. “I don’t put that much on myself. My dad doesn’t either; he says, ‘Just go out there and do your best.’”

“And that’s how it is. How you finish is how you finish. You can’t get down on yourself because of what you did do or didn’t do.”

Swofford’s dad, Curt Swofford, is a fixture at all of his tournaments, a one-man gallery for support.

While he gets the luxury and enjoyment of playing golf every week, the bottom line is it’s a competition, and your goal is to win. You need to focus on the game, while not pressuring yourself too much, he said

This past fall, Swofford was thinking about golf 24/7. This spring, his focus will be on track and field, well, moreso the field events. As just a freshman, he isn’t sure he’ll be able to compete for a spot in the track events. While at Vandalia Junior High, Swofford was part of the 8th-grade boy’s 4×100-meter relay team that took 24th at the IESA State Championships. He took 15th in the 200-meter with a time of 24.95. Swofford thinks that this season, he’ll find his niche in the long jump. At state, he placed 24th in the long jump with a bound of 17 feet, 5.75 inches. On the golf course, he tries to avoid the sand, but this spring, he might get praise for his time in it.

To put his 17-foot jump and 24-second run in perspective, VCHS’s current record for the long jump is 19 feet, 2 inches, set in 1986 and then again in 2006, and the current record in the 200-meter is 23.8, set in 2008. By the time Swofford graduates in 2013, he might be holding one or both of those records.

Track season is still a few months off, and he’s trying to squeeze in as much golf as he can before the weather gets too unbearable.

Just a couple weeks ago, Swofford sunk his first hole-in-one. Using a 6-iron on the ninth hole at Vandalia Country Club, he aced his tee shot from 174 yards out.

Golf Digest puts the odds of an average player getting a hole-in-one at 12,000 to 1 and odds of a professional getting one at 3,000 to 1. Swofford probably falls somewhere in the middle, a rare feat regardless of skill level.

It’s hard to believe he’s still just a freshman and has already accomplished so much in golf and in track and field. Who knows where Swofford will be or where he’ll be headed three years from now.

Blake Swofford on the first green at Vandalia Country Club.

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