OAKLAND – Another foot, and Eric Higgins might be wondering what could have been.
His second shot at the 15th hole Thursday at the 88th Maine Amateur at the Waterville Country Club came perilously close to rolling over a small hill and toward the back side of the green. It would have led to a sure bogey, or worse, derailed Higgins hopes. Instead, the ball rolled toward the pin and stopped within five feet of the cup.
“I was thinking, ‘Don’t go over,’ said Higgins, a 2001 graduate of Kennebunk High School. “I had a really delicate shot there. I had to put it in the perfect spot.”
On a day when golfers struggled to make clutch putts, those few inches made the difference for Higgins. His birdie on No. 15 gave him the lead for good, and he held off a late charge by Toby Spector to win the championship.
“It’s a tournament that every player in the state of Maine wants to win,” Higgins said. “It’s a great tournament, and they always have it at great venues. They always put together a great golf course and a great set up. It’s hard and challenging. You have to play really good golf.”
Higgins shot a 69 to finish the tournament at one-under-par 209.
Spector shot the best round of the tournament with a three-under 67, but he fell one shy of Higgins at 210. Joe Alvarez was third at 211 after a round of 71. Lance Libby, the leader after the first two rounds, lost his three-shot lead with a five-over 75 to finish at 212, tied with 13-time champion Mark Plummer, who shot 71.
Higgins, 24, had a bit of the eye of the Tiger in him as he erased a three-shot deficit during the first six holes and handled the pressure down the stretch. Higgins, a senior at the University of Northern Colorado, is coached by Wally Goodwin, who coached Tiger Woods at Stanford.
“I couldn’t ask for a better coach,” said Higgins. “He knows what he’s talking about. He’s helped me with the mental aspect of the game. I always put too much pressure on myself to win, and I’ve never won. I just tried to go out there and have fun this week.”
Higgins’ most memorable round before Thursday was when he tied PGA Tour player Brad Faxon at Cape Arundel during a round with President Bush a few years ago. That connection helped land him in Colorado.
After two rounds of even par left him trailing by three shots, Higgins knew a strong start was critical.
“My caddie (Rick Beote) and I spoke and said we’ve got to get out to an early start,” said Higgins. “I stuck to my game plan and hit a good shot on three and made birdie. I made a good shot on five and made birdie.”
While Higgins had two birdies in a span of three holes, Libby bogeyed consecutive holes. When Libby had a double-bogey on the sixth and Higgins parred, they were even.
Libby continued to struggle and couldn’t produce birdie opportunities.
Alvarez did have a couple of opportunities on Nos. 12 and 13, but settled for par on both.
“I just didn’t get it going,” said Alvarez. “I didn’t make birdie when I needed to on the back nine.”
Higgins and Alvarez were tied until the 15th, which Higgins birdied after his approach shot broke toward the hole. Alvarez did well to save par off a muffed second shot, but he couldn’t catch Higgins after that.
Spector surged down the stretch. He shot 67, despite hitting the ball into the woods on the 15th and striking a tree on the 17th.
“I hit every green on the back nine, but I missed six or seven putts,” said Spector. “I was striking it well. So there wasn’t much I could do. On 13, it lipped right out. It was a perfect stroke, and on 14, I thought I had it.”
Spector nearly eagled the 18th when his shot over the bunker stopped near the hole. He settled for a birdie and forced Higgins to make par on the final hole.
Higgins didn’t know about Spector’s birdie until after he teed off on the 18th. His tee shot landed in the right rough, but he put his second shot stopped 12 feet from the hole. He rolled the putt within a foot of the hole and tapped in to clinch it.