Kieran Low’s coming out party continued Wednesday at the Loyola Academy Regional tournament.
That should serve as a fair warning to the rest of the high school golfers still alive in the Class 3A state tournament field.
Low became the first Evanston golfer in at least 60 years to capture an Illinois High School Association regional championship, earning medalist honors on a chilly and breezy day at Wilmette Golf Club with a 1-over-par score of 71.
The ETHS freshman, playing with the poise of a veteran, helped the Wildkits keep their season going as they punched a ticket to the Conant Sectional tournament next Monday with a third-place team finish. Evanston claimed one of three automatic team qualifying spots with a score of 318, behind champion New Trier (295) and Loyola Academy (312) in the eight-team field.
Low’s performance came on the heels of a runner-up finish at the Central Suburban League South division championship meet and left no doubt that he already ranks among the state’s elite golfers in his first year of high school competition.
He scored birdies on the No. 5, No. 6 and No. 16 holes at Wilmette, with that last birdie – courtesy of a dead-on 8-foot putt – nailing down the individual win.
And everyone who wears the orange and blue believes the best is yet to come for the freshman sensation.
“This was a team effort today, but Kieran is a fantastic player,” said Evanston head coach Jed Curtis. “I think it started for him going back to the conference meet. That was really a big confidence boost for him and now he’s really had a coming out party the last couple of weeks.
“He’s the most accomplished junior player we’ve ever had come into our program, but he was playing against guys in his age group then. Now he’s up against kids who are four years older than he is and he’s started to see that ‘Hey, I can play with these guys!’ And these guys he’s playing against, from New Trier and Glenbrook North and Glenbrook South and Loyola, are the best in the state.
“They’ll all be playing at The Den [site of the IHSA state finals] – and he can hold his own against any of them.”
“I just wanted to do well today and help our team qualify for sectional,” Low said. “I really didn’t have high expectations. I am pretty excited, but it’s more like, ‘Oh yeah, I won, that’s pretty cool.’ I guess it hasn’t hit me yet.”
The ability to consult a cellphone app to get instantly updated scores during a high school golf tournament is still a recent phenomenon but didn’t put added pressure on the freshman. He was able to keep tabs on the other contenders Wednesday, including New Trier’s Alex Cremean, who could have caught Low with a birdie on the final hole but instead settled for a runner-up score of 72.
Low took an aggressive approach on the 18th hole and hit a dazzling approach shot over a tall tree, even though he knew the leaderboard still could have changed with a mistake or two.
“I don’t check the scores after every hole, just occasionally,” he said. “I did check when I was on the 17th fairway, but I was just trying to make pars at that point. Everything worked out fine. And looking at the scores didn’t put any more pressure on me.
“My putting was really good today and I’m really happy with that. Hopefully, I can keep that up.”
Low had to overcome a slow start after registering a double bogey on his third hole of the day, but got right back on track and didn’t let it affect the rest of his round, according to Curtis.
“He had that double after a par-par start, but he showed that he’s taken another step, maturity-wise,” Curtis said, “because he went par, birdie, birdie after that and bam! He was back to even.
“I think his short game [chipping and putting combination] is as good as anybody in the state. He has a real creative sense of the game around the green, and I love that. He has the ability to assess whatever the hole calls for and he can play a variety of shots. He just dials up whatever is called for – and his putting is automatic under 10 feet too.”
Low’s historic effort was necessary because, except for Ryder Bellios (39-40-79), the Wildkits weren’t in top form as a team. They did manage to beat out fourth place finisher Lane Tech (333) by more than 20 shots for the last team qualifying spot even though Low and Bellios were the only ETHS players to break 80.
Next best for Evanston were Nick Ghate at 42-42-84, Will Wagener at 43-41-84, Jamie Young at 40-45-85, and David Castellini at 45-43-88.
“I didn’t play as well as I would’ve liked to today,” said Bellios, a senior. “Kieran was so low today and that really helped us. It didn’t feel like a 318 [team score] to me. I could have attacked the course a little more, and I know we can improve on that score [as a team].
“I did manage the course really well today and my putting was really solid. It was a pretty consistent round and I never did blow up too badly. I had a lot of good up and down saves on the front nine,” Bellios said.
“I think my mentality is a lot better than it was last year. My mental game is a lot stronger. I’ve learned to accept bogeys and just move forward, and try to take it one shot at a time now. And my putting has definitely improved too.”
Curtis refused to describe Wednesday’s round as an “off day” and instead praised his squad for sticking with it and grinding out the best possible scores.
“I couldn’t be more excited because of the way the kids kept grinding on a very difficult day,” said the ETHS coach. “It was the first really chilly day [temperature below 60], the wind was blowing and the greens always run fast here. There were some tricky pin placements too.
“I’m super proud of Ghate’s 84 and the way he was able to grind after a not-great start. Wagener was 12-over but came up with back to back birdies [on No. 14 and No. 15], and Ryder had a triple on No. 6 but righted the ship and played well down the stretch. They did a great job.”