Athens Academy junior Meredith Bennett watches as a competitor takes a shot on the second hole at Monroe Golf and Country Club on Saturday.

MONROE—Golf seemed back on Saturday. The largest group of competitors in a one-day event in North Georgia Junior Golf’s nine-year existence took to the course at Monroe Golf and Country Club.

Over the multiple age groups the event featured 112 competitors.

The COVID-19 pandemic halted play for seven weeks before the tour returned on April 25 at Lane Creek. Tour executive director Chris Manzi felt Saturday’s field was a perfect storm.

The combination of competitors being inside and out of school for nearly two months, the reopening of the country taking the spotlight played a role in getting young golfers out on the course and the growing interest in the tour that began even last year played out into the tour high turnout.

“Our tour itself and how long we’ve been around, people around the state have started to recognize us in a wider area besides just a 30 mile radius,” Manzi said. “People know about us statewide. It just naturally has attracted more players per tournament this year than we saw even last year. We started to see our average per tournament go up last year... I also think that so many parents have had their kids basically held up in their houses not doing anything for six to eight weeks now. They just finally felt like it was a good day to get back out and start doing their normal activities again. That just hit at a perfect time for some of the various shut downs have been ending. I think people are just more comfortable getting out and doing their normal things.”

Athens Academy junior Meredith Bennett saw an opportunity to knock off some of the rust she accumulated after the spring sports season was canceled and the eight-week layoff that followed.

Bennett was looking to defend her Class A Private state championship win she earned as a sophomore in 2019, but COVID-19 ended those hopes.

Since the season was canceled Bennett has begun her tinkering phase. The junior admits she isn’t in her peak form as of now but she felt some good things came out her day in Monroe on Saturday. Bennett finished second in the girls 13-18 group. Bennett was seven over par as she fired a 79.

Her performance was good enough to earn her runner up honors on Saturday as she fell just three strokes behind winner Alisa Pressley from Hoschton.

“There was a lot of great competition and I knew a few of them from other tournaments but it was really fun,” Bennett said. “I’ve been trying to keep my mental game strong by playing some tournaments in May. I definitely knocked some of the rust off from the last three months. That was my main goal.”

For Bennett and other competitors, Saturday felt like a normal tournament. It was the finer details that gave them their reminder of the global pandemic taking place off the golf course. Social distancing guidelines were given as a reminder just before players hit their first tee shots.

Rakes for the bunkers weren’t available. Handshakes or hugs weren’t allowed and for seasoned golfers like Bennett it carried a little bit of awkwardness. Even among the awkwardness and subtle reminder of the times, Bennett felt safe on the course.

“I’m lucky I play golf because it hasn’t been too much affected by it other than some of the rules,” Bennett said. “It did make me feel safe not touching the flag stick because I totally understand that would be a lot of people touching it throughout the day as well as the rakes. They made good precautions with the rules to adjust to it. Also in golf you’re not really up in each other’s faces like the contact sports. I really do feel lucky to play a sport that you can play and still stay socially distanced.”

Bennett was one of multiple Oconee County players to take part on Saturday. Claire Bradford earned an eighth place finish in the girls 13-18 group after firing an 87.

Hailey Moffett finished tied for seventh in the girls 11-13 age group after she posted a 43. Josey Bufford and Kyler Hammond both shot a 52 to tie for 10th place.

David Wagner finished sixth in the boys 11-13 group with a score of 44. Collin Bradford finished in second place with a 37 in the boys 9-10 division. Madox Barnett came home in third place with a 38.

The next NGJG tournament is scheduled for June 1-2 at Chateau Elan in Braselton. It will be the first event of the summer portion of the schedule.

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