The golfers who remained to watch Shuhei Takahashi square off against Mateo Fernandez de Olivera in the playoff of the Junior World Florida Challenge huddled beneath a tree, a couple of hundred yards down the fairway of the 18th hole on The Resort at Longboat Key Club’s Islandside course.
Takahashi teed off second, and as his shot floated down the middle of the fairway they raved about his play.
“He’s a machine,” more than one said. “Middle of the fairway, middle of the green,” another added.
Takahashi’s drive set up a 7-iron approach to within a dozen feet of the hole. Less than half an hour earlier, the 18-year-old from Japan sunk a putt of similar length to force a playoff, so he stepped to his ball with confidence. Takahashi dropped in the putt and lifted his arms to the sky. The IMG Academy senior locked up his first win on the IMG Junior Tour since last September.
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“I was very confident on the tee box,” Takahashi said. “I know what to do on the last couple of holes, and I executed pretty well.”
The win provided a bit of redemption from a week earlier. Takahashi played in the final group of the American Junior Golf Association Senior Showcase on Sunday in Las Vegas, but fell short, finishing second four shots behind winner Trueman Park.
The quick turnaround brought Takahashi home to Longboat Key, about half an hour away from IMG, where he has trained and studied since he was in eighth grade.
He hovered near the top of the leaderboard throughout the three days of the Florida Challenge, shooting 1-under 70s on Wednesday and Thursday to take the lead into Thursday’s final round. He thrived on the back nine at Longboat Key Club, shooting a combined 8-under on the final nine holes for the tournament, including a 4-under performance Wednesday.
“I can’t say enough good things about him,” said Jay Denton, one of the Ascenders’ coaches. “He stays calm, really chill. I can’t ever tell if he’s playing good or bad. Most junior golfers you can tell if they’re playing good or bad.”
The win technically earned Takahashi an exemption into July’s Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego, however he will be 19 by then and outside of the eligible age range to compete.
So the prize for Friday’s win is the trophy he was handed outside the clubhouse and the thrill of regrouping after falling short in his previous tournament — a turnaround that seemed unlikely as late as the 18th hole of the final round. While playing the hole for the first time Friday, Takahashi’s approach sailed wide right, putting him in the rough with an uphill lie from beside a bunker. He chipped within 10 feet and pumped his first forward as he sunk the playoff-forcing putt.
It was the sort of ruthless efficiency that had some of his opponents raving later.
“He’s a machine,” one said.