Johansen’s Pena is Sac-Joaquin Section Masters medalist; Central Catholic advances

ragostini@modbee.comMay 12, 2014 

— Daniel Pena’s confidence was measured by what he did – and how he did it – Monday at the Sac-Joaquin Section Golf Championships.

The slim Johansen High School sophomore turned The Reserve at Spanos Park into his own shooting gallery with a 6-under-par 66, only a stroke off the Masters record. He pounded the course, consistently ripping tee shots longer than 300 yards, and separated himself from the rest of the field of 116 by three shots.

“Just practicing a lot,” Pena explained, “and getting a good feel for my clubs.”

Advice for the rest of the golf world: Please don’t tell him the game is not this easy.

Pena and Central Catholic, the young team that has punctuated the season with its eye-catching low scores, will ride into the Northern California Championships next Monday at Roseville’s Sierra View Country Club. The Raiders will make their first NorCal appearance after they finished third and topped Oak Ridge by seven strokes for the final team berth.

The numbers compiled by Pena, eight birdies against two bogeys, do not explain the degree of his excellence. A simple choice of clubs said it all.

He stood on the tee of the 18th, The Reserve’s dangerous par-4 with water guarding the entire right side, 5 under for the day with only four holes left. Many players would have opted for safety, maybe a 3-wood or an iron, and carefully negotiate for a par.

One problem with that strategy: It would have removed the driver, Pena’s best club, from his hands. He’d rather walk on hot coals than not hit the big stick. Then he showed why with an enormous 330-yard launch that left him within only 45 yards from the flagstick. A lob-wedge pitch and a 12-foot putt for birdie sustained his momentum.

“I was hitting a draw today, so I just choked down with the driver and hit a tiny fade,” he said. “It worked out great.”

The 6-foot Pena, an elite performer all season, accelerated the last few weeks. He’s gained about 60 yards off the tee since last year, and it all fell into place with a 68 at Creekside – his home track – two weeks ago at the Modesto Metro Conference Championships. Last week, he dodged a slow start at Elkhorn with a 75 at the Division 1 South.

“He’s got that thing most of us can’t find,” Johansen coach Dan Boer said.

The wind at the 6,650-yard par-72 Reserve, sometimes a gale, barely rose above a breeze. The greens, well-watered after stiff weekend wind, received all solid approach shots. The conditions were right for scoring, and eight players ducked under-par.

Pena, who struggled during his practice round, was encouraged by the more tame surroundings. He found 15 greens in regulation, thanks in part to drives straighter than a desert interstate. That, combined with a reliable putting stroke, eased what could have been a difficult day. Tellingly, he opted for 4-woods off the tee only twice.

“It wasn’t so much the shots as much as it was the putting,” Pena said. “I putted really good and hit some good wedge shots.”

He became the sixth Stanislaus District golfer in the last eight years to take home the medalist award at Masters. He’ll be joined at NorCals this time, however, by the talented Central Catholic team that didn’t wilt under the pressure.

Chris Ebster, one of the three freshmen who transformed the Raiders into a force, demonstrated the team’s depth with his 1-under 71. He started with bogeys at the 15th and 16th but – displaying maturity beyond his tender age – rallied through the front nine in 3-under 33.

“I was nervous at the beginning,” Ebster said, “and calmed down after the first two or three holes.”

CC saved strokes up and down its lineup. Junior Trey Wesenberg (75), one of the co-captains, nearly scored an albatross at the par-5 11th. He ripped a 265-yard 3-wood to within inches for a tap-in eagle.

Junior Mac O’Brien (77), the other co-captain, nearly capsized at the 18th. He twice rinsed shots into the water and one-hopped another off the plexiglass wind-break at the clubhouse patio. Incredibly, he chipped from beneath a bush, then somehow got-up-and-down for an 8 that should have been worse.

“A great 8,” he said. “Tin Cup stuff.”

No such drama stressed Pena, the best player on the section’s biggest day.

Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or (209) 578-2302. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeSports.

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