Harpole uses late surge to win Warren County Championship

Published 3:39 pm Monday, July 30, 2018

When he drove down the long incline bridge leading from the 15th tee box to the final stretch of the Warren County Championship on Sunday, Jeff Harpole was taking a trip he’d taken all too often the last two years.

He’d led the 2017 Vicksburg Country Club Championship in the second round and lost. Same with the Warren County Championship last summer. And now he had just watched a two-shot lead evaporate into thin air with a pair of bogeys that left him tied for the lead with a third man nipping at his heels.

“I wasn’t feeling real confident going into those last four holes,” Harpole admitted.

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Harpole dug deep and blocked out his self-doubt and personal history. He played smart and strong over those last four holes to regain and then preserve his lead, and got to drive home as a champion.

Harpole shot a 1-over par 73 on Sunday to finish with a two-round total of 143, good for a three-shot victory and his first Warren County Championship title. He made three pars and a birdie on that closing stretch after briefly falling into a tie with Brett Baker for the lead.

“I’m real happy with the score. Real happy that I got it done. I let this one get away last year. I let the Vicksburg (Country) Club Championship get away last year, too, so it feels good to get it done. It’s a great trophy. It’s going to look great on my mantle,” Harpole said. “It’s (the VCC Championship) next weekend, so hopefully I can put both these trophies up this year.”

Harpole shared the first-round lead at the 2017 Warren County Championship but shot an 81 in the final round and finished fourth. For a time, it looked like history might repeat itself. He started Sunday with a two-shot lead, but played the front nine in even par and then bogeyed a pair of par-3 holes at Nos. 13 and 14.

Baker parred both to pull even. Playing two holes ahead of them, Parker Rutherford was also making a charge. The 2015 County champion entered the day six shots back, but ripped off five birdies in a six-hole stretch from Nos. 7-12 to claw back to within three shots of the lead.

Mentally, Harpole said he tried to reboot before two bad holes turned into another wasted opportunity.

“Just keep your head in it. Even though I squandered a two-shot lead in two holes, I didn’t lose it,” he said. “I knew that I was probably going to have to make a birdie on 16, being tied. I knew I had to play the last four 1-under par or (Baker) was going to beat me. It was enough.”

Harpole carried out his game plan to perfection, making par on Nos. 15, 17 and 18, and birdie on the 16th exactly like he needed to. At the same time, his challengers wilted.

Baker also parred the 15th and made birdie on 16, and then bogeyed 17 to give Harpole the lead heading into the final hole. Rutherford sank a birdie putt on the 17th, but sandwiched it with two bogeys to stop his momentum.

“I definitely needed to do better than I did. The bogeys were real costly. I couldn’t make those,” said Rutherford, who shot a 70 on Sunday that was one of only three rounds of par or better in the entire tournament. “But it was a good day. It wasn’t much different than yesterday. Things just went my way a little bit more. Yesterday I couldn’t get anything when I needed to, and today there was a stretch where I couldn’t miss.”

Baker finished with a 75 on Sunday and was third for the tournament, at 147. Rutherford wound up at 146 and edged him out for second. Baker, though, was happy with how he fought through his struggles. He only hit five fairways off the tee in 36 holes.

“I know how well (Harpole) was playing, but I was playing myself because I hit five fairways in 36 holes. I was everywhere. I was doing all I could do just to hit a fairway,” Baker said. “My scores are even better than I played. I could have easily shot worse. I was having to work my way out and punch around things.”

Baker, who grew up in Vicksburg but now lives in Alabama, said he decided to play in the tournament on a whim while visiting his parents. He hadn’t played at Clear Creek in 20 years.

“I had zero expectations. I just wanted to play in it and see some people I hadn’t seen in a long time. So it was fun all around,” Baker said.

Harpole, meanwhile, lived up to expectations — both his and his challengers.

“I said it yesterday, that he’s solid and we’re going to have to come get him,” Rutherford said. “I’ve played with Jeff several times and I don’t ever see him shooting higher than about 78. He’s rock solid. He hits it straight, he putts well, he’s one of those guys who’s almost built for holding the lead. You have to chase him down. He’s not going to make bogeys. I did everything I could. I just fell a little short.”

Harpole did make a few bogeys. Four of them, in fact, in 36 holes, with three of them coming on Sunday. He balanced that out with five birdies and 27 pars to become the fourth different Warren County Championship winner in the past four years.

“In golf, you just have to play your game and hope that it’s good enough,” Harpole said. “If you start trying to play heads up against a guy you’re doomed. So it was just trying not to make a big number and make some pars coming down the stretch. I made the pars to finish and I won it.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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