The Port Arthur News
PORT ARTHUR —
In the middle of reflecting on his $400,000 tie for third last week at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, Chris Stroud abruptly steered the conversation to Port Neches-Groves’ rising star Braden Bailey. Because their golfing backgrounds have so much in common — playing at the Pea Patch, attending the same high school and getting a heavy rush from college recruiters, Stroud looks at Bailey almost like a little brother.
“I am really impressed with what he’s accomplished up to this point,” said Stroud. “I feel like he’s probably a little ahead of where I was at that age. I’ve talked with Braden and his dad and I want to do everything possible to help him get better and benefit from some of the things I learned along the way.”
Five days after Stroud talked up his young protégé, Bailey made the would-be mentor proud by scoring the biggest victory of his career. Competing against a field of 78 young stars from eight states and seven foreign countries, Braden fired rounds of 70-70 to win the Legends Junior Tour’s Texas Cup Invitational.
His two-under-par 140 at Mira Vista Country Club in Fort Worth was two shots clear of Logan Davis of Humble and three better than Chandler Phillips of Huntsville. He’d started Sunday’s final round one stroke off the pace of Josh Gilege of Eagle, Idaho, taken the lead with a birdie on the par 3, 7th hole and never looked back.
Was the kid nervous as he thought about what would clearly be his most significant win? Of course he was. He was so nervous that on the final three holes he hit the pin twice with his second shot on par 4 holes — from 45 yards on the 310-yard, 16th and from 128-yards on the 343-yard, 18th. In between, he birdied the 542-yard, par 5, 17th.
“I was feeling the pressure on the back nine,” Bailey said. “I felt it the most standing on the tee on the 18th because we had to wait. I just wanted to put the ball in the fairway and get the second shot close. It was definitely my best win. My ball striking was really good, I hit a bunch of greens and rolled in a few putts.”
The spoils of victory were significant for Bailey, who is currently ranked No. 155 nationally among junior golfers in all classes, and is No. 4 in the Texas class of 2015. He earned an exemption into any event hosted by the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA), which is the top tier of junior golf. He’ll also be exempt on the Texas Legends Tour and he grabbed a spot in the prestigious Jackie Burke Cup, a Ryder-cup type event in November in College Station.
His recruiting, meanwhile, went from aggressive to ballistic. Already high on the list of many of the nation’s top golf programs, and even more in demand since a huge chunk of the most heralded players in the class of 2015 have committed, his e-mail blew up with congratulatory messages and pitches from college coaches.
“It’s crazy,” said Braden’s dad, Brad. “It’s just unbelievable the amount of e-mails, and the tone has changed from ‘we want you to visit, to you just went to the top of our list.’ There were so many messages that he asked me if we could turn off the e-mail function on his phone.”
Oh, yes, and there was an invitation from that guy Stroud, who now makes his home in Houston. After his final two PGA Tour events, Chris wants the Baileys to come to town for dinner, a one-on-one about Braden’s goals, a discussion on recruiting and 18 holes at posh Lochinvar Golf Club.
Stroud, in his remarks about Bailey last week, made it clear that he’ll be serving up a strong pitch for Braden to follow in his footsteps at Lamar, but that he’ll be supportive of any choice that’s made.
“Brad is letting Braden make his own decision and that’s the way it should be,” Stroud said. “I’m going to help him in any way I can. I’ve done a pros and cons list, and I can’t figure out enough reasons for him to not go to Lamar. Why? Because he’ll have Brian White working with him, and I don’t think there’s a college coach that can better prepare him for the PGA Tour. Whitey is a swing builder and a developer.
“I had a chance to go to some bigger schools when I was coming out. At the end, when it came down to Texas A&M and Lamar, and I chose Lamar, I had several people call and say, ‘what were you thinking about?’ I told them it was because of the talented people at Lamar that were going to be working with me.
“A year and a half later we were No. 1 in the country. I can’t say for sure, but I honestly believe I’m where I am today because of what Whitey did for my game. Going to Lamar was the best decision of my life.”
Bailey has taken unofficial visits to Arizona State, Rice, Vanderbilt, North Texas, Sam Houston and Lamar. Also in the mix are Notre Dame, Arkansas, Central Florida, San Diego State and Baylor. He’ll be making a visit to Baylor the weekend the Bears No. 6 ranked football team plays Texas.
“I’m not really leaning anywhere right now,” he said. “I’m trying to narrow it down to a few schools I really like, then I’ll choose from that list. I do think I’m probably going to end up staying in Texas.”
As for the budding relationship with Stroud, he’s flattered that a successful professional player, albeit one who attended the same high school, is so interested in him.
“It’s amazing for a PGA Tour player to take time from his schedule to talk to me and tutor me,” he said. “I know there is so much I can learn from him. Last year, he did a clinic for our golf team, and the things he told us really helped me. The mental stuff has been invaluable. So were the drills. His message was to relax, stay calm and trust your swing. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”
Judging from what happened last week in Fort Worth, he’s doing it pretty well.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.