'Huge' HOF win for Craft Jun 17, 2010  (9 years ago)

 
By Randy King
Jun 17, 2010, 22:17

Chris Wirt drives off the fourth tee at Hunting Hills Country Club. Wirt blew a three-stroke lead. SAM DEAN The Roanoke Times

In a final round in which a packed leaderboard swapped the lead back and forth like a stock-car race at Talladega, cagey veteran Darrell Craft emerged as the ultimate survivor in the 37th Roanoke Valley Golf Hall of Fame men's championship Sunday.

While all his much younger competitors slipped at some point down the stretch, the 40-year-old Craft held steady in the heat of battle and registered the biggest triumph of his career.

''This is huge,'' said Craft, who shot an even-par 70 to finish with a 54-hole total of 1-over 214.

''I sat for 30 minutes waiting for the last couple of groups to come in. I felt like I was going to lose by one shot. Then Mark Funderburke [a fellow contestant] comes up and says, 'congratulations, you've won.' And I was thinking, 'is this official or what?' "

Yes, it's official.

Craft, owner of North Roanoke Assisted Living home, got some major help from his fading competitors. The biggest assist came from Chris Wirt, who held a three-stroke lead at his home club before crashing late, finishing double bogey, bogey and bogey on the final three holes.

Scott Wise hits off the fourth tee at Hunting Hills Country Club during the Roanoke Valley Hall of Fame golf tournament Sunday.

''Yeah, it hurts,'' Wirt said. ''Had I known I had a three-shot lead going to 16, maybe it would have changed things. I hit a hybrid at 16, trying to take the safe way, and it was really the only bad swing I had the whole weekend. It was just unfortunate it was there.''

Wirt was referring to his tee shot on the par-4 16th, which he pulled left about 5 feet out of bounds. Coming off the double, the recent Radford University graduate then missed the 17th green with a wedge, then hit a poor chip shot and missed a 20-foot putt for par. Knowing he had to make a 45-foot downhill putt on No. 18 to force a playoff, Wirt saw his hopes of victory dismissed. He missed the comebacker for par, which left him in a four-way tie for second place at 216 with 2008 winner Marshall Bailey (72), Lanto Griffin (73) and upstart John Swanson (75).

''I didn't really feel any pressure until probably the chip shot on 17,'' said Wirt, a former Southwest Virginia Amateur champion. ''When I got over the chip, I really felt a little bit of excitement, 'thinking i can make this, easily get it up and down.'

John Swanson reacts to missing a putt on the third green at Hunting Hills Country Club during the Roanoke Valley Hall of Fame golf tournament Sunday.

''Winning at my home track would have been great, but I haven't been in a position to win a tournament in probably a couple years. You've got to put yourself in position a few times before you can learn to close it.

''That's all right. We're going to celebrate Hunting Hills winning the team title [the club's first since 1989]. This is a team tournament, and it means a lot, so we're going to the Mexican restaurant and have a few margaritas.''

Wirt wasn't the only guy kicking himself while leaving the parking lot.

Bailey, who entered the day three shots back, killed his hopes when he airmailed his tee shot on the 133-yard, par-3 13th and made a double bogey. Griffin, the Colonial Athletic Association player of the year in 2008-09, never could get going on the tight 6,058-yard track.

Swanson, 33, hooked his first tee shot of the day left and started with a triple bogey-7.

Two-time champion Scott Wise, who began the day tied for the lead with Swanson at 2 under, doubled the first, fourth and eighth holes en route to a 76 that left him alone in sixth at 217.

Meanwhile, Craft continued to evenly plod along and work his way to the front.

''When I teed off this morning, I wasn't thinking anything about Darrell,'' Wirt said. ''He just kind of lurks and sneaks in there. I was thinking maybe I've gotta worry about Lanto, Marshall and [Aaron] Eckstein.''

Craft's victory, however, wasn't cheapened by the downfalls of others. While he was runner-up to Gary Leroux in the 1998 Roanoke Valley Match Play Championship, Craft has taken his game to a new level the past four years by relentlessly pounding balls on the practice range and changing his mind-set.

''I won the club championship at Ashley Plantation in 2006 and it kind of got my mind thinking about 'am I going to sit around and not take this serious, or do I want to see how good I can get at this level and the state level and see how things unfold?'

''I'm not thinking I'm going to go out and win the State Amateur three weeks from now, but I would like at least think hard work and hitting balls every day pays off because I have goals I want to achieve. It took me a long time to realize that time is going to tick by and you need to get off the pot, so to speak.''

As sweet as the victory was, it won't even be the highlight of the year for Craft. The lifelong bachelor plans to get married in September.

''I want to thank Karen Shrader, who is going to be my future wife,'' he said. ''She gives me all the time in the world to go out and play golf. She doesn't complain, she just says 'go hit balls' because she knows I enjoy it.''

Conceding he's very meticulous about his equipment, Craft thanked Ashley Plantation member Larry Smith, who has set him up with clubs that work perfectly for his game.

Then, there is his Aunt Dot. That would be Dot Bolling, who fell short in her chase for a ninth HOF women's title Sunday.

''I used to send her thank you cards, but she won every tournament that I finally had to stop sending them,'' said Craft, of his aunt who has captured more than 30 major titles on the local and state levels.

''Maybe she'll send me one this year. If she wants my address, she can call me and I will give it to her,'' he added, laughing.

 

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