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Eckroat wins Junior Invitational with closing birdie

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Graniteville, S.C. - Austin Eckroat was hitting his drives right and his irons left. His five-shot lead to start the day at the Junior Invitational had evaporated. He stood in the right rough on the 18th hole at Sage Valley 235 yards from a back-left pin, needing par just to force extra holes.

"I had no idea what I was doing," Eckroat said. "I got to the point that I was just testing things. ... Then on 18, I just forgot everything and swung."

Eckroat roped a 2-iron that landed on the middle of the green and skipped back to the upper level, leaving him 12 feet for the win.

"I knew it was good when I heard the claps," he said. "It was the most clutch shot I ever hit."

When he walked up on the green and found his ball, Eckroat faced the exact putt he practiced earlier in the week and never made.

"I couldn't get it high enough," he said. "I kept under-reading it. So on that one I made sure I hit it high enough. I thought I made it dead center, so I took a step, and then it broke even more, and went in the left side.

"I walked it in."

2016 Junior Invitational leaderboard

Eckroat, a 17-year-old Edmund, Okla., native and an Oklahoma State commit, won the most prestigious event in junior golf, the Junior Invitational, with a closing round of 3-over 75 and a three-day total of 6-under 210. He edged Australia's Min Woo Lee, brother of two-time LPGA champion Minjee Lee, by a single shot after Lee rallied from nine shots back with a Saturday 67.

Up five to start the day after rounds of 65-70, Eckroat began leaking oil on the very first tee, when his opening drive found the hazard right of the fairway. He started off double bogey-birdie-bogey and his lead was down to three after only three holes.

Lee, separately, got off to a torrid start, making four birdies on his first seven holes before a double bogey at the ninth - briefly - halted his momentum. Undeterred, he poured in four more birdies across a back-nine 33, punctuated by a 40-foot birdie bomb at the par-4 17th.

"It was probably the best shot I ever hit," he said. "Down the hill, left to right, right to left, double breaker. It just trickled in the hole."

Eckroat, at roughly that same time, followed a birdie on 15 with a bogey on 16 and found himself tied for the lead, at 5 under, for the first time since he vaulted to the top of the board on Thursday.

"I heard the loud roar, and I knew it was Min Woo, and I knew what I had to do," he said.

With his closing birdie, Eckroat became the second wire-to-wire winner of this event, joining inaugural champion Nicholas Reach, who did it in 2011.

The only freshman to ever win the Oklahoma Class 6A individual championship, the current junior said before his final round that a victory at this event would be the most important of his young career.

"It's even more special now," he said. "I was really down on myself because I thought I was giving it away for a while. I just wasn't hitting it good. To hit that 2-iron on the last hole ... it was just really nice."