By Gary Kalahar, JTV Sports
Scott Denig knows there’s a difference between averaging 33 in his golf league and being successful in tournament play.
Knows it. Understands it. And, now more than ever, appreciates it.
Denig, undoubtedly possessing the physical tools to be a top-flight player, has coupled that with a better mental approach and produced a breakthrough season that he capped Saturday by capturing his first major local tournament victory. Denig defeated former champion Josh Dirlam 5-and-4 in the 36-hole final match at Cascades Golf Course.
The victory ended a solid week of golf for Denig in which he never trailed at any point in his five matches. To say he came out of nowhere to win the title might be a bit of an exaggeration – but not much. Consider that he had never previously won a City Championship match, losing in the first round in his only other two appearances.
That was then. This is now.
“I knew I had the game. I didn’t have the mental game,” Denig said of the difference that allowed him to claim the title.
Three weeks ago, Denig and Dirlam were in the final group on the same course battling for the County Open title. Denig bogeyed the 18th hole to set up a playoff that Dirlam won on the first hole. Denig said even that defeat was a giant leap forward for him.
“I knew where my game was, I could hit the shots I wanted to hit under pressure,” he said. “And it made me hyper-focused. I knew I could compete with all these guys, I could compete with all the best players in Jackson.”
And this time, he held the lead, going 2 up after the morning round and never letting Dirlam get closer than that, carding three birdies in a bogey-free afternoon round.
“It’s tough to beat that. Scott played really well,”Dirlam said.
“To finish it off, after I had the lead (in the County Open) and didn’t cap it off – words can’t describe how excited I am,” Denig said.
Denig, 27, said his game also received a boost in the last year when he competed for Jackson College. The Jackson High School graduate had started his college career at the University of Northwestern Ohio before a snowboarding accident left him with a concussion and changed his plans. He works at the Chrysler Proving Grounds in Chelsea, and while pursuing a degree in automotive technology at JC, decided to return to collegiate golf. He closed the season with a trip to the junior college national tournament.
“That definitely helped, playing with some of the best kids in the country,” he said. “That helped my mental game, how to practice, understanding the process of going from practice to the course.”
Dirlam’s runner-up finish clinched him Player of the Year honors in a season that saw him win the County Open, finish second in the City and the Jackson Masters and advance to the semifinals in the Lyle Ambs Memorial.
“My goal was to win the Masters and the City,” said Dirlam, the 2015 City champion who now heads into his senior year at Lawrence Technological University. “I fell short in both. But I played some good golf this summer.
Denig won the first three holes of the match with two pars and a birdie, and it was a struggle for Dirlam the rest of the way. He could not get some crucial putts to fall that might have turned the momentum back his way, but the putter wasn’t necessarily at fault.
“I didn’t hit it close enough,” Dirlam said. “I left myself too many 20-footers.”
Dirlam came back from the early deficit to even the match by the 14th hole, but Denig came right back with a birdie on No. 15 and led the rest of the way. He birdied the 18th and then the first hole of the afternoon round to go 3 up.
Even though he couldn’t convert an eight-foot eagle putt on the par-5 second hole and they halved it with birdies, Denig said his second shot there was a huge confidence boost.
“I felt like it was my tournament to win after that,” he said.
Denig stretched the lead to four with a par on No. 8 before Dirlam made a 14-foot birdie putt to win the ninth. Denig closed in on the title with a winning par on No. 11 and a 13-foot birdie putt on No. 13 to go 5 up.
“I didn’t hit the ball very well, but I was still confident going into the second 18,” Dirlam said. “But he kicked my butt.”