By Brandon Koch
The Tonawanda News
Following an early afternoon practice round Monday, North Tonawanda’s James Blackwell was spent.
The 17-year-old St. Joe’s graduate spent hours in the sweltering heat at Niagara Falls Country Club, making a few final tweaks before competing on the most prestigious stage yet of his young career.
“Once I got done with all the heat and everything, I just went home and collapsed,” Blackwell said, before coming back out to the course at 1 p.m. Tuesday.
For Blackwell, though, it’s been a little more than the sultry, near-90 degree temperatures that has the Ball State-bound blue-chipper worn down near summer’s end.
Three weeks ago he missed out on qualifying for a Porter Cup bid by one stroke. A day later he medaled at East Aurora Country Club, but eventually Blackwell succumbed to Quebec’s Joey Savoie by a stroke in the match play finals of the International Junior Masters.
”I think the Junior Masters, that might have been a little (fatigue), but that’s not why I lost,” Blackwell said. “I think anybody who makes it that far, you have to be a little tired after that many holes in that little time. ... But I think once you get in the moment and you’re there and you’re playing, adrenaline is going to kick in and it can overtake some of that (fatigue) from competing.”
His adrenaline will receive an added boost today when he tees off for the 54th edition of the Porter Cup at NFCC. Blackwell, who thanks to a bit of lobbying from his supporters, will be one of two Niagara County natives playing in the distinguished amateur golf tournament along with Mike Boss, a Lewiston native and Porter Cup veteran who gained entry by winning the NFCC championship on Sunday.
“I think this is the best field that I’m going to play in,” Blackwell said Monday, noting he’s eager to see some familiar faces watching from the gallery this week. “This is definitely the biggest event. ... This should be a good chance for me to get my world ranking up and really show some of the guys out there that I can play even though I’m not a big name.”
It’s certainly been a busy summer for Blackwell, who kicked off the season on fire with a final round 3-under 69 to win the Buffalo District Golf Association Men & Women’s Tournament of Champions Invitational.
The 2011 BDGA Junior Player of the Year has plenty to look back and reflect on.
”I was talking with my dad (Roger Blackwell) the other night and we were talking about how things just kind of happened,” he said.
Following a stellar freshman campaign at St. Joe’s, Blackwell was involved in a serious car accident that left him questioning whether he’d be able to even grip a golf club again. A car which he was driving in flipped over several times during a sever rain storm back in 2009.
“Right after the accident when I came back, I was extremely tough on myself,” he said. “I was expecting to be the freshman that I was the year before.”
Following his junior season he decided to just put the clubs down, opting to put golf on the back burner to get his head back during the summer.
“I was fed up with (golf),” Blackwell recalled. “The spark was not there as much as it should have been.”
Little by little Blackwell got back on his feet again, breaking through what he calls a “wall” that prohibited him from developing his game during those years.
“Golf is a mental game. It’s easy to get down on yourself,” he said. “Everything’s going so fast in your mind and all of a sudden golf becomes the toughest task in the world.”
Aside from tweaking a few minor things, Blackwell’s ability to set his targets on the next task at hand is what has guided him during one his most productive summers yet.
“My dad always told me not to get too high and never get too low,” Blackwell said. “Once you get too high, coming back down to reality could be a big fall. Too low, and it’s too stepp a climb to get back up. Yeu have to stay grounded.”
Blackwell spent the summer correcting a slight move in his backswing. But more importantly, he said, he’s worked tirelessly on his short game.
“If I can get hot with a putter I can compete with any of these guys,” said Blackwell, lamenting his struggles 10-15 feet from the pin at the Porter Cup qualifier as well as the later rounds of the Junior Masters.
Further evidence of what Blackwell can accomplish when his short game is on par is when he shot an 11-under through 72 holes during a three-game stretch last fall.
That confidence and unseasonably quick start to the summer season propelled him through the past six months.
Blackwell’s play at the Junior Masters earned him a late offer to attend Alabama on a four-year scholarship.
“I haven’t officially signed an offer (from Ball State),” Blackwell said. “Obviously, Alabama is ranked No. 1 in the country for golf, but the way I’ve been raised, I gave (Ball State) my word and gave them my handshake.
“I like Ball State a lot. I want to fulfill my word at least,” he continued. “Whatever happens, happens. We’re going to have a really good program over there. We’ll be one of the top teams regardless.”
Friday night following the final round at the Junior Masters, he said he received “the OK” from Porter Cup tournament director Steve Denn.
“It’s a really good opportunity to measure myself up with them,” said Blackwell of a field that includes many of the top-ranked amateurs in the world.
“(Blackwell’s) probably one of the best strikers in the area,” said Williamsville’s Jake Katz, who took part in the Porter Cup last summer prior to taking his shot at the pros. “He’s always been able to drive. He doesn’t miss many fairways, doesn’t miss many greens. He’s just always been a good striker. And his putter has gotten a lot better in the last year. If he putts well, he can definitely compete.”
Katz is no stranger to Blackwell. They’re both members at Westwood Country Club. Katz said he was thrilled to learn Blackwell got the nod after his performance in the Junior Masters.
Being one of the top local amateurs at the Porter Cup, Katz had plenty of advice for Blackwell heading into the tournament.
“You just really have to keep your head down and make some birdies out there,” Katz said. “You really have to limit your mistakes. I’m sure he’ll do just fine.”
Blackwell added: “I want to get out there and put myself into a position to make a run at it. If I get hot with the putter, I’ll be right up there.”
Contact Tonawanda News sports editor Brandon Koch
at 693-1000, ext. 4117.