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Freshman phenom Aidan Gutierrez hopes to continue championship season

Freshman phenom Aidan Gutierrez hopes to continue championship season

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VALPARAISO — Nothing grips golf audiences more than competitors either too young or too old for anyone to reasonably expect them to do what they are doing.

Think: Tiger Woods winning the U.S. Junior Amateur at age 15, the U.S. Amateur at 18, the Masters by 12 strokes at 21. Think: Phil Mickelson winning the Masters four days before turning 51, and Tom Watson at 59 with an artificial hip coming within sinking an 8-foot putt of winning the British Open.

Age-defying golfers inspire little-white-ball chasers, young and old, to race to the first tee with thoughts of recapturing the past or hurrying the future. They grow the game.

Based on the season he’s having for Valparaiso High School, freshman Aidan Gutierrez has the potential to grow golf locally. Already, a buzz about the wunderkind who turned 15 in March is building throughout the Region.

In early May, Gutierrez shot a 70 to win the Rensselaer Invitational at Curtis Creek, then a week later won the Uebele Invitational at Beechwood in LaPorte. He shot a 69, despite carding a bogey on each of the last two holes. During his round that started on No. 14, word spread to the pro shop that he had lipped out a birdie putt on 18 and proceeded to birdie five of the next six holes. Buzz-worthy stretch.

Gutierrez saved his most dramatic victory for Tuesday’s Duneland Athletic Conference Tournament. He struggled to a 39 on the front side and backed it up with a 33. Trailing Crown Point’s Ray Filter by two strokes with three holes remaining, Gutierrez finished birdie, birdie, par to win by two strokes.

Valparaiso coach Wayne Lichtenberger’s program has spit out elite golfers at nearly the rate the late Don Zimmer spit tobacco juice onto the Cubs’ dugout floor. He’s not easily impressed, which makes the words he speaks about Gutierrez all the more impressive.

“Aidan almost holed out on 17, a par 3,” Lichtenberger said. “He put it to 6 or 8 inches. It was amazing to watch him finish those last three holes.”

Lichtenberger reeled off several names of exceptional ball-striking Vikings of years past, including Chip Martin, Todd Price, (Valparaiso Sectional record-holder with a 64) Bobby Jacobs, Kyle Meihofer, Bill Welter and many more.

“In all my years, I’ve had some kids shoot some great scores, but Aidan is about a year or two ahead of these guys, what he’s doing at this point in time,” Lichtenberger said. “And they were amazing players, don’t get me wrong. He’s had either eight or nine rounds at even par or under par. The most I ever had a player have in the same season was, I think, three or four.”

Gutierrez leads the Vikings into Friday’s Valparaiso Sectional, which starts at 9 a.m. at Forest Park, his home course. The Lake Central Sectional at Palmira Golf and Country Club tees off at 8, as does the LaPorte Sectional at Beechwood.

If Gutierrez isn’t at his best, his coach doesn’t think nerves will be the reason.

“He doesn’t seem to succumb to pressure,” Lichtenberger said.

Did you happen to hear that Gutierrez shot a 60 at Indian Ridge in Hobart with a 29 on the back side? No? Well, that’s because he only revealed it when asked to name his lowest round. It was not in a competition, and he didn’t head into the pro shop afterward to see if he just set a course record. He sets the bar higher than that.

“At some point in time he wants to try to make the (PGA) Tour,” said Lichtenberger, who had not heard about that round.“He’s very goal-oriented, and he’s also an honor student. That’s not that common to have that blend.”

Wheeler coach George Topoll said of Gutierrez shooting a 60 at Indian Ridge: “I don’t doubt it. He’s very talented and that’s a fairly easy course when the conditions are right. He’s the real deal. He has a long way to go to get to his ceiling, but he’s only a freshman.”

Lichtenberger said that Lake Central coach Tim Powers told him that there is “an aura” that surrounds Gutierrez.

“That’s true,” Lichtenberger said. “There is something special about this kid. Mom and dad have done a great job of raising him and he’s been around some great coaches. He’s made some great decisions as a young man. He knows how to keep centered. All of those things put together create that aura.”

Gutierrez identified his greatest strengths as, “probably my all-around short game. I’m really good out of the bunkers, and I’m a really good putter.”

That doesn’t mean he’s a slouch with a driver in his hands. He said his longest drive in a tournament was 359 yards at Purdue University’s Kampen Course.

“It was on hole 16, a par 5,” he said. “I had the wind coming out of the right and at my back, and I just slung one.”

He’s serious about getting better, but not afraid to enjoy the journey by letting one rip every now and then. Watching him play and listening to him talk, it’s clear he loves to play the game.

“I think the thing that hooked me on golf was just that it was a solo player, so you have to take full responsibility for everything,” Gutierrez said. “Obviously, a lot of people make excuses, but there is no, ‘This guy didn’t do his job, so that’s why I’m not winning.’”

Not quite one-fourth into his high school golf career, even if he were an excuse-maker, Gutierrez seldom would find himself in need of reaching into his bag for that club.


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