For two of the area’s top recently graduated golfers, the Kansas Junior Golf Association summer tour is serving as a useful transition from prep to collegiate golf.
This summer will be the final time Oberlin’s Kelly Brown and Hays’ Payton Ruder participate before beginning collegiate careers. Brown will play at Division I University of Nebraska-Omaha in the fall, while Ruder is headed to NAIA Baker University in Baldwin City.
Both have been playing in KJGA events since middle school, if not earlier, and have seen the summer work pay off.
“I’ve been playing KJGA (events) for a long time, probably at least eight years,” Brown said.
“It’s been great. I have a lot of good opportunities to shoot good scores and have good competition. If you play well, you can compete well. It’s been really nice.”
“I think it’s great,” Ruder added. “You definitely get to see a little more competition than you do in high school golf. It’s nice playing in these in the summer because you just get out of the season, so you’re already in the swing of things. It makes it a little easier to play well.”
While Monday’s tournament at Smoky Hill Country Club was the fourth and final event for the West Section, both golfers will continue to play this summer. Ruder qualified to represent the Sunflower State at the Optimist Junior Golf Championships in Palm Beach, Fla., after placing in the top five of a qualifying tournament in Emporia. He expects the competition at the tournament, which starts on July 30, to be amongst the best he’s faced.
“I’m really trying to hit the range hard to get ready for that and perform well there,” Ruder said.
“Other than state, that’ll be my biggest competition. I’m excited for it.”
Brown qualified for the KJGA Sectional tournament after firing a 69 on Monday. He’ll also play in the Kansas Amateur Match Play Championship in Garden City.
While he won Monday’s tournament by a seven-stroke margin, the future Maverick is mostly concerned with individual improvement.
“I’d like to continue to keep playing well, keep trying to improve and get better,” Brown said. “That’s really the overall goal.”
Ruder finished with an 80 on Monday, which left him disappointed with his showing on his home course.
“I didn’t hit very many fairways and so obviously, I was punching out a lot,” Ruder said.
“It definitely makes it hard to score well.”
While he might not be thrilled with his most recent outing, the Wildcat-to-be can see the benefit of continued competition. He won’t have another layoff until the weather dictates as much.
“It’s definitely going to help, just transitioning from one (season) to the next to the next,” Ruder said. “There will be a little bit of a break in the Christmas season, but really, it’s going to help a lot to stay focused and stay sharp.”
Brown and Ruder regularly finished in or near to the top five at the other three events. The Hays product’s top showing came at Liberal’s Willow Tree Golf Course where he shot a 77 and took sixth. He finished in fifth with a 78 at the Dodge City and Garden City events.
Brown saved his best showing for Monday. He previously shot a 77 in Liberal and an 80 in Garden City.
“I played well. I started out pretty good, made a couple birdies,” Brown said, recapping Monday’s round.
“I had some good looks but didn’t really convert a lot of them. I was getting myself good looks. I was happy with it.”
Neither golfer felt that playing without a team attached, as they do in KJGA events, drastically impacts their approach, at least consciously.
“I feel like if I play for myself and shoot good, it will help the team,” Brown said. “I feel like the team is a bunch of individuals working together for the common good.”
“I don’t think of it really, but I’m sure it does play a factor,” Ruder said. “You definitely play for yourself a little bit more than you do for your team. I think you play a little bit more for yourself, maybe take some more risks than what you might when you’re playing in a season.”
Ruder plans to spend the rest of the summer breaking in a new set of clubs before he heads off to college.
“I gotta make sure and get used to those before I get to Baker,” Ruder said.
Brown would like to tighten up his game off the tee in his remaining KJGA events.
“I’d like to keep improving on my driving and getting it more in play and working on my ball-striking overall,” Brown said.
“I feel like this has pretty good competition. There are some pretty good players, for sure.”
It may not match the quality of competition each will face at the next level, but it seems to be a good start.