McGihon Finally Leads in the Round That Counts — Sunday

For each of the last three years, Scott McGihon has led at least one round of the SCGA Amateur Championship. But not until 2000 did he lead the round that really counts, the final one.

And don't think it wasn't on his mind.

The soft-spoken 32-year-old McGihon — Avondale GC member, grade school teacher and high school coach — melded brilliant shot making with uncanny scrambling ability as he fired a 4-under-par 67 at historic Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club and rocketed past third-round leader Steve Conway and local favorite Darin Sullivan to win the 101st rendition of the nation's second-oldest continuously contested amateur golf championship.

McGihon's total of 68-72-73-67 — 280 (4-under-par on the par-71 Rancho Santa Fe layout) was four shots better than a trio of golfers: Conway, Sullivan and U.S. Junior Amateur champion Terry Noe.

Which means, of course, that McGihon was the only golfer able to subdue par during three increasingly muggy days in the quiet foothills above the north San Diego County coast where Bing Crosby gathered his revelers for a little clambake (and some golf) more than a half-century ago.

A quartet of golfer finished another shot back: Mark Etue, whose final round of 65 equaled Mallinger's first-round course record; Mallinger; and two of the pre-tournament favorites, reigning state Amateur and SCGA Mid-Amateur champ Tim Hogarth who rallied from a double bogey on the first hole to shoot 69; and four-time SCGA Amateur champion Craig Steinberg.

McGihon probably couldn't get his sixth-graders to still buy the aphorism "steady wins the race", but guess what, it did.

In 1997 at Lakeside, McGihon sprinted to the front with a stunning 66 at Lakeside, but never saw par again for the next three rounds, finishing ninth.

Two years ago, McGihon led going into the final round at The SCGA Members' Club, only to see Greg Padilla rally from off the pace with a final-round 67 to take the prize.

Last year, McGihon led with two holes to go at Industry Hills GC, only to have John Pate snatch the trophy by birdieing the last two holes.

In 2000, Scott was three strokes back and tied for third after 18 — when Long Beach State's John Mallinger light-outed the course for the first time over that weekend with a record 65. He was in arrears by a pair of strokes at the midway point, and had five strokes to make up as he hit his No. 1 tee shot on Sunday.

McGihon birdied four holes on the front nine against a single bogey, then posted eight par and a crucial birdie on the homeward nine, finishing with a sandy par on the par-three 17th and an adventuresome par-5 on the final hole, which included a tricky punch shot from the trees and a five-foot par putt to seal the win.

Meanwhile, Conway — the 18-year-old recent Santa Margarita High School graduate who earlier this month set a tournament record to win the CIF-SCGA High School Boys championship — found out the hard way that golf is a game of inches.

Moments after making a birdie on the par-3 seventh hole to go 6-under-par for the tournament, good for a three-shot lead, Conway hooked his second shot on the par-5 eighth hole three inches out of bounds (it was so close that SCGA rules officials had to run a straight line string to determine that the ball was, in fact, out of bounds). Conway went on to make triple-bogey 8 and suddenly his seemingly safe lead had evaporated.

Conway and McGihon remained deadlocked until the 450-yard, par-four 12th. After hooking his drive into the rough, Conway sent his second shot into a greenside bunker. He bladed the bunker shot well over the green, could do more than pitch back to within 15 feet and two-putted for a double bogey.

When McGihon wasn't making birdies, he scrambled beautifully for par; he had only 23 putts in the round, just 10 on the front side. He finally put some space between himself and the field when he birdied the tough, 409-yard, par-four 15th hole. "I hit two great shots," he would say later, and sank a nine-foot putt for birdie. "I felt like I got things back in control of my game again with that hole. And when I mailed the drive on No. 16, I felt really at peace with myself."

His tee shot on the 194-yard, par-three 17th found the right greenside bunker, but for the third consecutive time in the round he got up and down for par.

Two other golfers threatened the leader briefly. 36-hole leader Sullivan, the UC San Diego student who is a cart attendant at Rancho Santa Fe, birdied Nos. 3 and 4 to get within a shot of the lead, only to make a double-bogey 6 on the sixth hole. Noe was even more spectacular, making birdies on Nos. 6 and 7 and an eagle on the par-5 eight, but neither could get any closer.

In the third round, Conway, who will enroll at UCLA in the fall, sank a 35-foot birdie putt on the 582-yard, par-five 18th hole en route to a 2-under-par 69. The 208 for three rounds (5-under-par) gave him a two-stroke lead over Sullivan going into the final round. McGihon had to settle for a 2-over-par 73 putting him along in third place with and even-par total of 213. Noe was another shot back with a 70, one of only four subpar rounds posted Saturday.

"I probably didn't take this tournament seriously enough last year," admitted Conway. Not in 2000. He made only one bogey on the day and offset that with three birdies (Nos. 8,9 and 18). Conway was bidding to become the second-youngest person to win the event. Dr. Paul Hunter was 17-years-old when he won the first of his five SCGA Amateur title in 1908.

As for McGihon, he had four birdies on the front nine but also made a double-bogey 6 on the fifth hole when he put a shot into a water hazard. He also had two three-putt greens and assessed himself a penalty when his ball moved after he addressed it. "My score could have been so much better," he said ruefully.

When the grueling two-round fist day was over, no one could convince Darin Sullivan there was no such thing as a home-course advantage. Sullivan had rounds of 68-70 —138, 4-under-par — to lead Conway by a stoke. Another shot back at 140 was McGihon, as the cut broke even at 42 with a 152 score or better.

Sullivan started on the back nine in the morning with birdies on two of his first three holes. He made the turn in 3-under-par 32 and birdied his 10th hole to reach 4-under-par. He bogeyed Nos. 2 and 6 but finished with a birdie on the par-5 eigth hole to finish at 3-under-par 68. The afternoon was a different story. "The wind came up and the greens got firmer and faster," he said later. "It was an entirely different course; you had to think about landing your ball short in order to hold the green.

Sullivan also had his share of good fortune. He made birdie on No. 16 after hitting his drive into the hazard and watch it kick back into the fairway after hitting a tree. In the afternoon, he eagled the par-5 eight hole after hitting his drive in the rough. "I was just trying to hack it out," he admitted later, "but I caught a fairway wood perfectly, it ended up nine-feet from the hole and I made the putt."

The story of the morning round was Mallinger, who lit up the venerable Rancho Santa Fe course with a course-record, 6-under-par 65, breaking by one the five-year-old mark held by UCLA student Steve Wagner when he was a senior at Santa Margarita High.

The 20-year-old Mallinger, a semifinalist in last year's state amateur, posted seven birdies and only one bogey on his round. "I drove the ball really well," he said. "I made some good putts and I didn't make many mistakes." He started at No. 10 and immediately served notice of things to come with a birdie 3 on the 450-yard 11th hole, which plays as a par-five for member but was a par-four in this event. Mallinger finished that nine with a flourish, making four consecutive birdies (Nos. 15-18) to close ot the front.

In the end, though, both shoes were on McGihon's feet. "Just like (John) Pate last year," McGihon said when he finally consented to talk about the victory, assured when the day's last group had teed off at No. 18, "I hadn't won anything for a pretty long time." After a long pause, he added, "Since I started teaching five years ago, I really haven't played much, you know like five or six tournaments a year."

Steinberg, who's won four of these and was hovering for most of this event chasing another, summed up the feeling of many in the field and on the sideline alike when he told McGihon, "It was justice, it was finally your turn."

Scott McGihon just smiled.

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