TEMPLE TERRACE — At times, Jimmy Stanger admitted, the failure to win a district tournament had become an albatross that hung on him like a granite-filled golf bag.
But on an overcast, mild Monday, the Gaither junior and elite FSGA competitor traded in that burden for something lighter: an angel on his shoulder.
Buoyed by the memory of former best friend and teammate Harris Armstrong, Stanger hit 16 of the Temple Terrace Golf & Country Club’s swimming pool-sized greens en route to a 3-under-par 69 that won the Class 2A, District 9 title by five strokes.
He did it just the way Harris, a perpetually optimistic redhead who died of spinal cord cancer in 2008, would’ve loved: with clutch chipping and soft, sure putts.
“That was his specialty, an incredible touch,” said Stanger, who had Harris’ initials etched on his ball and raised his index finger skyward after completing each hole. “He was definitely in my thoughts today.”
At times, it seemed Harris, himself an exceptional player at Berean Academy, was serving as Gaither’s celestial caddy. The Cowboys, seeded sixth, got solid rounds from sophomore Patrick Highland (84) and Clyde Meadows (81) to finish third and keep their season alive.
The top three teams, and top three individuals not on those teams, moved on to next week’s Region 3 tournament in Winter Garden. Plant, led by junior Ryan Gendron’s 74, won with a 309 team score, followed by 2010 champ King (329).
The Panthers girls, led by University of Miami commitment Laura Hendee’s 77, also won the team trophy for the 10th consecutive season with a four-player 322.
But it was the Cowboys, led by Stanger, who carved out the story line of the day. Highland, who hadn’t eclipsed 40 in a nine-hole match all year, shot 38 on the Temple Terrace front to help Gaither slip past No. 3-seeded Sickles (340).
“You talk about a great team win,” Cowboys coach Dwayne Olinger said. “Seeding can be a misperception. The reality is, (a match on) 18 holes can be a lot different than nine holes.”
Stanger, who won an FSGA boys age-group state title two summers ago, was 1 under at the turn before making consecutive birdies with dazzling approach shots on No. 10 and 11.
On the 308-yard, par-4 11th, he used a knockdown 8-iron for a low-trajectory approach that rolled to within 4 feet of the cup.
Five holes later, his ill-aimed drive hit a tree and ricocheted smack into the center of the fairway, about 135 yards from the hole.
“(Never winning a district) definitely put a weight on my back that I didn’t need to be there,” Stanger said. “I kind of let it go today. I tried to get out here and enjoy it, play a great round.”
Also moving on as individuals: Hillsborough’s Will Clarke (77), Alonso’s Eric Silver (80) and Sickles’ Matt Tinkey (80).
In girls action, Hendee, who turned 18 Friday, earned a belated birthday gift with a round she characterized as rife with “highs and lows.” Classmate Kelsey Eisch, the 2010 district champion, and freshman Kayla Poff each shot 79.