Aspen golf team is on the upswing | AspenTimes.com

Aspen golf team is on the upswing

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesAspen High School senior Ryan "Speedy" Smith tees off Monday in the Aspen High School Skiers Invitational tournament at the Aspen Golf Club. Aspen took first place among the 11 participating teams, beating Steamboat Springs by 14 strokes.

ASPEN – Just three years ago, the Aspen High School boys golf team didn’t even think about winning tournaments – nor did they try particularly hard to do so. The team back then, a mere six players, hit balls in between goofing-off time; Ryan “Speedy” Smith, who had traded in a promising tennis career for golf, typically competed with an untucked shirt, and a backward Yankees cap on his head.

Things have changed, markedly and swiftly. The team now expects to win tournaments, and on Monday the boys did just that, taking first in the Aspen High School Skiers Invitational tournament at the Aspen Golf Club. The team, with a whopping 29 players on the course, bested 11 other schools to finish 14 strokes ahead of second-place Steamboat Springs. It was the team’s seventh win in nine tournaments this season.

In a measure of how far the team has come, the mood after the tournament was not entirely celebratory. Jesse Beetham, though he shot a 73 – tied for best among the Aspen golfers and just two behind the individual champion, Parker Pogge of Vail Christian – was displeased with his total of 40 putts. Clayton Crawford, who won the tournament last year with a 74, thought this year’s 77 reflected a lack of hole-to-hole consistency. One player commented that it was “the roughest tournament we’ve won” this year.

Still, it was far more satisfying than three years ago, when the Aspen players dreamed more about avoiding double digits than about shooting par: “If someone told me we’d have a really good team by my senior year, I’d have laughed,” Smith, now a senior, said Monday after shooting a 73. (Smith made no excuses for his score, even though he is scheduled for surgery to repair a torn labrum.)

The seed for the turnaround was planted while the current set of seniors were not yet in their teens. Some seven years ago, Alden Richards, director of the Aspen Junior Golf program, took a group of 11-year-olds to Europe, where they played some of the world’s most beloved courses. The effects of that experience, however, didn’t take hold quickly; when Mary Woulfe, the current head coach, took over the team four years ago, only three boys came out for golf.

Part of the team’s improved fortunes can be chalked up to the addition of two players: Beetham, who two weeks ago won the club championship at Aspen Glen, and whose father, John, was a professional golfer; and Clayton Crawford, a sophomore who has won two tournaments this season, including one in Rifle, with a 68. But other players who were around in the dark years have stepped up their game considerably. August So regularly shot in the 90s two years ago; now, as a junior, he is often among the three low scorers on the team, thus contributing to the team victories. Ryan Fahy, a senior, won a tournament in Vail last week. And Beetham refers to Smith, who averaged around a 99 as a freshman, as “the most improved kid of all time.”

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“Jesse’s love of golf became infectious,” Woulfe said. “Then his best friend, Tommy Doyle, got hooked. Ryan Smith switched to golf from tennis. Then people thought, ‘I can be part of something, something special.'”

Woulfe added that the community has rallied around the team, with support coming from parents, new coaches, the golf clubs in Aspen and Snowmass, and the Aspen Skiing Co. But for the most part, the inspiration seems to have come from the golfers themselves.

“It’s kids influencing other players to get out here,” Beetham said. “We see in our school gym, we just got a banner put up for regional champs. It’s good for people to see how good we are.”

Their fellow students have noticed how good the team has become. “Golf was like a joke, not a sport,” Smith said of the perception during his freshman year. “Now people read the newspaper, see we’re really stepping up. They see we’re competitive now.”

In at least one way, the team has gotten too good: Due to the team’s depth, several solid players aren’t expected to play at the regional tournament next week in Rifle, or the state tourney, Oct. 3-4 in Gunnison. Among those who aren’t likely to participate in those tournaments are Fahy, and Coulter Young, who finished second at the regionals two years ago.

“You win a high school tournament and then you don’t place high enough on your own team to play in regionals or states – that’s something,” Coach Woulfe said of Fahy.

The team’s improved performance on the links has mirrored its commendable behavior around the clubhouse. At a recent tournament in Vail – where the Skiers took the top three individual places as well as the team championship – the team stopped its celebration to clean the restaurant where the post-tourney festivities were taking place. “The coaches from the other teams couldn’t believe it. They weren’t just cleaning up their mess; they cleaned the whole place,” Woulfe said. “So it’s not just about golf.”

And sometimes it’s a matter of good golf intersecting with good citizenship. Last year, Smith missed out on a tournament because he was on academic probation. This year he is showing more regard for his grades.

“I want to be out here playing. So I’m not going to be failing my classes,” he said.

stewart@aspentimes.com