By BRIAN JENNINGS
Matthew Luponio walked onto the ninth green and saw that his ball was the furthest away from the hole. So that made him the first to putt.
Like a surgeon under pressure, he went to work. He observed the putt and looked over it a few times, studying the breaks on the green and drawing up an imaginary line in his head. The putt seemed like it was miles away from the hole as he got up to practice his stroke.
“It was nerve-wracking,” said Matthew.
There were two other kids in his group at the Connecticut Nutmeg State Games golf tournament on Sunday, July 12 at Stanley Golf Course in New Britain, and Matthew had to make this putt to put the match away. Thoughts started to race through his head.
“I was just reflecting on everything I had learned in the past,” he said. “I’ve been taking lessons up in Cromwell at the River Highlands for three years with the First Tee of Connecticut. I just tried to pull out and remember every single thing they taught me about putting throughout all these years that I’ve been practicing and taking lessons with them.”
Matthew settled into the putt and took a deep breath. He took the putter back slowly and followed through with a stroke that was as smooth as silk. He followed the ball all the way through its path, while speed married distance on the putt. The ball slowly trickled across the green and dropped into the cup.
Matthew’s 15-foot putt on the ninth hole clinched the gold medal with a score of 52 in the 12-and-under boy’s division. He edged Ryan Bell (53) of Glastonbury for second place. Michael Kowalski (54) of Broad Brook, Caleb Roden (56) of Southbury in fourth, and Joseph Kowalski (58) of Broad Brook and Drew Lindbom (58) of Columbia both tied for fifth. The division was limited to 12 participants and medals were awarded to first, second, and third-place finisher in each age group.
“It’s an amazing course,” said Matthew. “It looks magnificent and playing on it is amazing. It’s very challenging, but that’s what makes it such a great golf course. It challenges and pushes you, making you better as you go along on the course.”
Even though he was in contention throughout his entire round, Matthew said his mind was never on winning the tournament.
“If I didn’t do so well, that’s fine with me,” said Matthew. “I might just be having a bad day or I need to focus on something to improve my game and come back next year. Once I started getting further in, I started finding out that I had a good chance of winning. I talked to myself and said, ‘Wait a minute. I’m playing pretty good right now. I could keep going and possibly win this.’ It was neck and neck the entire time.”
Matthew’s first-place finish on Sunday marked his first golf tournament he had won and will be an accomplishment that he’ll remember forever.
“My confidence and self-esteem have definitely been boosted by this win,” said Matthew. “I don’t want to get overconfident with it because you win some, you lose some, in simplest terms.”
Matthew has been playing golf since he was six years old. About five to 10 minutes away from his house is the Highland Golf Range, where Matthew attended a two-day camp for four years. At the age of 10, Matthew started taking lessons through the First Tee. He has been playing a lot of golf throughout the summer with the First Tee’s travel league, in which he plays nine holes at his home golf course, East Mountain, every Saturday.
“I’ve played at Willow Brook, Minor Hills, and Pequabuck,” said Matthew. “I’ve played a lot of different courses besides that. I’ve been definitely getting a lot of golf in this summer.”
Matthew said that he golfs two to three times a week and doesn’t particularly have a favorite golf course to play.
“I love all the courses, as long as I’m playing golf on them,” said Matthew.
Matthew might not have a favorite course to play, but he does have a favorite club in his bag.
“My favorite club is my hybrid,” said Matthew. “It’s always been there for me. It’s always been there for me when I mess up. When I hit a bad drive, I can rescue it with the hybrid. I’ll be a chip and a putt away from the hole. If it’s a short par three, I can just hit it with my hybrid and I’m on the green. It’s an amazing, multi-purpose club.”
Matthew’s also has a favorite pro golfer, and his name is Jordan Spieth.
“To come in so young and make such a big impact is inspiring, especially for kids my age,” said Matthew. “He remains cool and confident. He’s able to play without getting too stressed out. He sets a good example for younger players like me on how to go about playing the game.”
Matthew is 12 years old and will be entering seventh grade at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Plantsville. As for his game on the links, he plans to continue taking lessons at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell in the fall.
Corey Sturgis, 15, also represented Southington on Sunday, winning the silver medal in the 16-and-under boy’s golf division to finish with a score of 89 through 18 holes.