Courtesy of Minnesota Golf Association
The last time Derek Hitchner
claimed victory at a state championship in Minnesota, he broke the Class AA scoring record to win medalist honors by shooting 10-under 134 in 2016 at Ridges at Sand Creek to cap off his sophomore season at the Blake School.
Fast forward five years and Hitchner can call himself a state champion for a second time, breaking a pair of Minnesota Golf Association Amateur Championship records by shooting 15-under par 201 at Rush Creek Golf Club to continue his blistering 2021 season.
“Winning this tournament has always been a goal of mine because I’ve played with so many of these players and I’ve played in it four or five times before,” Hitchner said following his round Wednesday. “It means the world to me to be able to get this done. I knew it would be tough, but I’m thankful to come out on top.”
The Pepperdine University golfer placed inside the top-20 at the Sunnehanna Amateur last month in Pennsylvania before carding a 7-under 281 to win the 117th Trans-Mississippi Amateur Championship at Windsong Farm July 9.
A few days later Hitchner qualified for his third U.S. Amateur Championship by tallying a 36-hole score of 6-under 138, and followed it with a runner-up finish at the Minnesota State Open last week at Chaska Town Course, shooting 12-under 132.
Including his win Wednesday, Hitchner has shot even par or better in 16 of his last 18 competitive rounds, with 12 consecutive rounds under par. Hitchner has played his last 327 holes in a combined 38-under par.
“This month has been pretty surreal,” Hitchner said. “Golf is so unpredictable. Going into the Trans-Miss, I was playing pretty badly—I had just finished [tied for 84th at Pinehurst]. I wasn’t feeling great, but felt like if I kept working hard that I could break through. Thankfully that’s happened and I’ve been able to sustain it. I’m trying to take it day-by-day, but it’s been a pretty cool stretch.”
Hitchner's 15-under 201 tally Wednesday marks a new low in relation to par, topping Frankie Capan's 12-under finish at last year's championship at Edina Country Club, as well as James McLean's 54-hole aggregate score of 203 set in 1998 at Rochester Golf and Country Club.
Carding a tournament-low 8-under 64 to open the championship Monday, Hitchner followed it with a 4-under 68 to take a one-stroke lead over Caleb VanArragon
after 36 holes of play.
Unable to convert multiple birdie chances early Wednesday, Hitchner started the scoring by sinking back-to-back birdies from eight feet at the fifth and sixth holes, moving to 13-under and increasing his lead to three.
Curling a left-to-right breaker from six feet at the 11th, Hitchner began to pull away from the field before VanArragon’s tee shot at the par-4 rolled to eight feet where he would convert his eagle chance to pull within three.
After sinking a 15-footer for birdie at the 15th, Hitchner would head to the final hole with a two-shot lead over VanArragon, who birdied the 17th. Finding tree trouble right of the 18th fairway would lead to the third bogey of the week for Hitchner, and he would finish with a one-stroke victory at 15-under 201.
“The fundamental idea today was to give myself chances at birdies,” Hitchner said. “I don’t try to force it because that’s where errors possibly occur, so I tried to stick to process objectives that I have on each shot and try to execute.
“Today was nerve-wracking—especially because I knew there were so many good players behind me and I was playing with two of the best players in the state. I knew that no lead was ever safe and it almost erased the idea that I had a lead. I didn’t feel like any lead would make me feel comfortable.”
Hitchner will begin his junior season at Pepperdine this fall, where he ranks eighth all-time with a career scoring average of 72.08. He’s played 89 rounds in 21 events, notching six top-10’s and nine top-20’s with 23 rounds below par.
After heading to Chicago to compete in the Western Amateur Championship next week, Hitchner will round out his 2021 summer schedule with an appearance at the U.S. Amateur at Oakmont Country Club.
As a junior golfer, Hitchner claimed the 2017 Gary Woodland Under Armour AJGA Championship and six times finished inside the top-10 at AJGA events. He was named 2017 Rolex Junior All-American honorable mention, as well as the MGA Junior Boys’ Player of the Year.
VanArragon opened the tournament with a 6-under 66 Monday and would post back-to-back rounds of 68 for his best finish at the championship, improving on a seventh-place finish a year ago.
Following an up-and-down front nine Wednesday, VanArragon made a late surge with his eagle at the 13th and birdie at the 14th to move to 13-under for the championship.
Sinking his birdie chance from inside of six feet at the 17th would get VanArragon within two and he would make a spectacular up-and-down to save par after finding the penalty area left of the 18th fairway, to finish one shot back at 14-under 202.
“Today I wanted to stay in the moment, play confident and not get ahead of myself,” VanArragon said Wednesday. “I knew it was going to be tough chasing Derek because he hardly missed a shot all round. I’m not that disappointed because Derek played so well. When he does that, there isn’t much you can do to beat him.
“I’m not sure if it was nerves, but I definitely didn’t get off to a great start. My putting just wasn’t there and I wasn’t hitting my iron shots as close as I have been. This week I’ve done a good job of recovering from bad shots. I’m really happy with where my game is at and this is a confirmation that the work I’ve been putting in this summer is paying off.”
VanArragon entered the week with one victory to his credit this season, claiming a seven-stroke victory at the Twin Cities Championship in late June.
During his sophomore season at Valparaiso University, VanArragon was named Missouri Valley Conference Golfer of the Week three times, notching five top-5 finishes. He owns the school record for a single-season scoring average and nearly set a new mark with a 72.59 scoring average over 22 rounds in eight collegiate appearances.
His first state championship win came in 2017 at the Minnesota Boys’ Junior PGA Championship and followed it with a win at the Minnesota State Junior Boys’ Championship the following season.
Andrew Israelson, who carded a 7-under 65 to finish as runner up last season at Edina Country Club, fired a final-round 67 Wednesday at Rush Creek to finish in a tie for third with Lucas Johnson at 9-under 207.
The 119th MGA Amateur Championship will be contested at Olympic Hills Golf Club in Eden Prairie, Minn.
by Nick Hunter, Minnesota Golf Association