St. John Neumann district champion Robert Walbert, left, and state qualifier Gus Vickers, right, pose for this photo at Wyndemere Country Club, the Celtics' home course, on Oct. 28. GREGG HARDY/CSI
Robert Walbert and Gus Vickers knew their window was closing … rapidly.
That probably made their respective performances at districts and regionals all the more sweeter.
On Oct. 21, five days after Walbert became the first St. John Neumann boys golfer to win a district title in 11 years, Vickers became the first Celtic in eight years to qualify for the state championships.
Varsity teammates since they were freshmen, Walbert and Vickers sat down alongside coach Charles Alaimo on Oct. 28 at Wyndemere Country Club, the Celtics’ home course, to discuss their postseason accomplishments.
“I feel like this year was all about finishing strong,” said Vickers, who shot 77-81 on Friday and Saturday at Mission Inn Resort’s El Campeon Golf Course to tie for 28th place in the Class 1A championships. “For me and Robert, both being seniors, we wanted to end on a good note.”
Said Alaimo: “We prepare all year for basically two tournaments — districts and regionals — and this year, we were successful in both.
“I expected these guys to play well this year. … Gus, Robert and Tyler (Stamerro) have been the backbone of our team for the last three years. We just haven’t had a player that was strong enough to get us where we needed to go (as a team). But these guys are fantastic players, (and) they work very, very hard. They’re not just good golfers; they’re good people.”
They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day. That certainly rang true for Walbert, who was able to shrug off a rocky start to his district championship round at Island Country Club thanks to a team breakfast that morning on Marco Island.
“We were completely relaxed,” Walbert said, “and I got onto that first tee and I knew that (it) was going to be a good day regardless of what happened.”
Walbert easily rebounded from the couple of shots he dropped early on, and by the end of his round, he knew he was playing well enough to be in contention for top medalist honors.
“I didn’t know I was doing that good,” he said about the three-shot margin of victory he was about to post.
“Aggressive and juiced up” as he approached his final hole, Walbert chose to tee off with his 3-wood, which was “pretty conservative, I thought.”
He ripped it, leaving himself with a 9-iron into the green. Not about to let his adrenaline overtake him, Walbert left his approach shot 25 feet short of the flag. He nearly holed the putt.
“I really had a lot of energy going into the end, and I think that’s what helped me finish the round,” Walbert said.
His victory nearly helped the Celtics earn a sweep at districts, as they fell two strokes shy of Community School for the team title. Walbert shot a 73, followed by Vickers (77), Stamerro (82), Josh Costain (89) and Cameron Klaas (91).
Vickers didn’t view his pre-round experience at regionals nearly as fondly as Walbert did his at districts. Hitting practice balls with Stamerro at The Meadows Country Club in Sarasota, Vickers said the two of them combined for about 10 shanks.
Humbled by his struggles on the range, Vickers still pieced together a solid round of 75 — eight shots back of Cardinal Mooney champion Noah Kumar and good enough for a share of fifth-place and a trip to states. Vickers became the first Neumann boys golfer to reach states since Edward Figueroa did so consecutively in 2010 and 2011.
“I feel like I had a few shots at the end that sort of saved me,” said Vickers, Collier County’s lone male representative at the 1A championships. “I had a really nice escape shot (on the 14th hole) — I hit a 9-iron over a group of trees to about 25 feet to save par.”
Vickers closed his round by going birdie-bogey-birdie. Even without that final birdie, he would have still made it to states with an at-large berth. But he wasn’t going to take any chances.
“I told myself on the last hole that this might be my last hole of (competitive) golf ever,” Vickers said. “I was 4-over at the time, and I knew it would be close, but I just wanted to make sure I ended on a good note, and I ended up sinking a 30-footer for birdie, which was pretty clutch for me.”
Walbert was in contention to join Vickers at states until a miscue on the 17th hole cost him. He barely missed out on an at-large bid, which ended up going to Bonita Springs High School’s Mason Dozer.
It’s been a pretty eventful time in Robert Walbert’s life. A few weeks before his victory at districts, he was one of three junior golfers from The First Tee of Naples/Collier to tee it up at famed Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Joining Walbert at the PGA Tour Champions’ PURE Insurance Championship were St. John Neumann girls district champion Sophie Shrader and Gulf Coast High School’s Joey Burke, who was part of the Sharks’ state title team in 2017. The annual tour event pairs up a First Tee junior golfer with a PGA Tour Champions player.
Walbert teamed up with two-time PGA Tour Champions major winner and Bonita Springs resident Peter Jacobsen. Even though they missed the cut and only got to play two of the tournament’s three days, Walbert called the trip a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“That week, probably, was one of the best weeks of my life,” said Walbert, who also got to play and practice at Poppy Hills, one of Pebble Beach’s sister courses. “… Playing with Peter was one of the greatest experiences of my life. We might not have had the best week of golf, but he was certainly the happiest, most positive person out there, and I really learned a lot, mentally, from him.”
Asked if he had a favorite hole at Pebble, Walbert said it was the picturesque par-5 sixth that runs along Stillwater Cove. He called the hole “super intimidating” due to its blind, uphill second shot over a cliff.
“It’s the coolest hole I’ve ever played,” Walbert said. “We don’t have that many hills here in Naples, Florida … .”
A First Tee participant since he was eight or nine years old, Walbert said the organization has been instrumental as he makes his way toward adulthood.
“They’ve helped me a lot not just with my game but being a good student and doing the right thing in the community, making sure that I’m staying involved,” Walbert said.
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