AJ Gauthier can vividly remember the mental turning point of his high school golf career like it happened yesterday.
The Munster senior golfer played in a tournament Nov. 25 to 27, 2011, at ChampionsGate Golf Resort in Orlando, Fla., with Cameron Andrade, the son of professional golfer Billy Andrade.
"What happened was I was really struggling with my game, mentally, closing down the stretch," Gauthier said. "I would always be in my mind, like, 'Seriously, you've got to play well.' I would go double (bogey), par, bogey, double."
Gauthier finished poorly and was frustrated, but Billy Andrade was complimenting him during his round. Gauthier asked him for help in closing out games.
Andrade's answer was simple. He told Gauthier to learn to care a little less, which in turn caused him to remain calmer under pressure situations.
"Sometimes, I realized that I put too much pressure on myself," Gauthier said. "In retrospect, it's just a game of golf. You're supposed to enjoy it. It's not supposed to stress you out."
Caring a little less doesn't mean Gauthier's competitive fire has burned out. It continues to burn bright, especially given the disappointment of last season.
The Mustangs lost a playoff to Lake Central to finish second at the L.C. Sectional, then finished seventh at the LaPorte Regional with 320 strokes. The competition was so tough in that meet that Munster was only nine strokes behind the third-place team and final state qualifier, Penn.
Gauthier finished with a team-best 75, three strokes off the final individual state qualifier.
"I was disappointed, because it's not often I make five birdies in a round and shoot over par," he said. "It was a reminder that big numbers over bogeys really do hurt your score. While birdies are nice, you have to stay consistent with pars."
The unquestioned leader of the team is also coach Bill Smitka's student aide for his last period U.S. history class. Even during that class, Smitka says Gauthier regularly talks about his golf game.
"He leads by example," Smitka said. "When we play matches, he takes the younger players under his wing. He's a natural leader, a straight 'A' student and has no problem taking control of a situation."
Smitka said there hasn't been a team meeting yet this season where qualifying for state hasn't been discussed. It's an obvious goal of Gauthier's and the rest of his teammates, but there is a very real possibility the Mustangs may not even make it past this year's revamped Lake Central Sectional, which includes Boone Grove and Crown Point.
"Sectionals will be huge, and regionals will be huge, too," Gauthier said. "We've had success in the past at Palmira. We have to make sure we take that back nine and play well on it. Our whole team needs to stay strong mentally."