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Dramatic finish caps rivalry

Kinney, Nealy play to a draw, share 4A title

AURORA - Writers in Hollywood would kill for this script.

In a confrontation befitting the big screen yet played out on big greens, longtime golf rivals Tai Kinney of North Medford and Johnna Nealy of Grants Pass engaged in such a high-level game of can-you-top-this that onlookers were left to catch their breaths from the drama.

In the end, Kinney and Nealy would tie for the girls Class 4A state championship Tuesday at Langdon Farms Golf Course, sharing a trophy each senior dearly coveted; Kinney because it seemed her destiny and Nealy because it's a family tradition.

It came down to this:

Nealy, who has largely been cloaked in Kinney's shadow, trailed her Southern Oregon Conference nemesis by one shot with one hole to play.

Playing a group ahead, Nealy hit three seemingly perfect shots and made an eagle — on the par 5 finishing hole.

Kinney, who had maintained a narrow lead over Nealy for two days, stood in the fairway and listened as the crowd ringing the 18th green cheered Nealy's successful putt from about 8 feet.

"I was going, 'Wow, I have to make birdie,'" said Kinney.

She came to this realization as she stood over the ball she'd driven to within 150 yards of the green. A low-trajectory iron put her long and in a swale, off the green and 20 feet from the pin.

A chip that agonizingly checked up 5 feet short of the hole was, an eternity later, followed by a putt that found the heart.

The sigh Kinney emitted nearly blew the sky free of clouds.

"I was very relieved," she said, leaning on the "very."

"It's how it should be," said Nealy. "We've been going at it for a good four years. This really was a storybook finish."

What made this showdown particularly special was that the principals clearly were the two best players in the field and that it was decided not when one failed to execute a shot but only after each performed the most delicate of tasks under a thousand pounds of silence.

"It would have been hard," nodded Tim Sam, the North Medford coach, "to see one of these girls lose when neither one played second-place golf."

They had two-day totals of 148, five shots better than third-place Kailin Downs of Mountain View. No one else was closer than nine.

South Medford's Abby Fowler placed 14th with a 167 following her second-round 85.

In the team race, Grants Pass placed sixth and South Medford 12th.

Nealy shot a 1-over-par 72 Tuesday, including 1-under 35 on the back.

Kinney countered with a 73, overcoming a double bogey on each side to claim a piece of the title.

Last year, Kinney was runner-up by one shot, giving her three top-10 state finishes and greatly whetting her appetite for a title.

"Last year, I came so close to winning it," she said. "This year, it's my last high school tournament and my last chance to win state in golf."

"Now," says the two-sport standout, "all we have to do is win it in softball."

Kinney was cruising along as she teed up at the par-3 13th hole. Her overall lead had swelled to three shots after Nealy three-putted the 13th from long distance.

With a troublesome pond to the left and openness to the right, Kinney nevertheless pulled it dead left into the water. After taking a drop, she hit a wonderful low, running chip that stopped — feet beyond the hole. A confident putt didn't have the consequence for which she hoped, hence the double bogey.

Kinney rebounded nicely with a birdie on the next hole, but bogeyed 15.

She made a fine par on the long 16th, going driver, fairway metal and two putts, then made a saving par putt for — after missing the green at the lengthy 17th.

"My short game kicked in today," she said. "Before this, it wasn't too good."

In fact, said Sam, Kinney had slumped terribly the previous couple of weeks and needed an impromptu lesson from swing coach Ed Fisher of Grants Pass Golf Club - he also tutors Nealy - to iron things out.

Essentially, said Sam, her hands were too quick and promoted a right-to-left ball flight, if not a pull.

"And she's always been a straight hitter," he said. "But in a week, she has the aptitude to fix the kink, put it behind her and win a state championship. That's the type of kid she is."

Nealy was first to the 18th tee, a par 5 with water running the last 140 yards down the right and only a narrow neck at which to hit.

Nealy kept her drive left, as desired, and got a little "cart-path love," she said. Her ball bounded off the concrete and settled only 130 yards from the hole. She squeezed a perfect iron to 8 feet and drained the putt.

It was the first time in a while she'd thought, "Maybe I can win this thing. But I knew Tai would step up and play like she always does."

Kinney, too, drove it hard left, got a cart-path bounce and ended up in the rough, across from the 150 marker, with the ball slightly below her feet. Her approach came in low and, had it hit a couple of feet shorter, might have wound up next to the hole rather than behind the green.

Kinney, oblivious to the crowd and the pressure, hit her chip, then sank her putt. One of her playing partners, McNary's Jackie Silbernagel, had a similar line, but Kinney paid only casual attention.

"I saw some balls roll by and all," she said, "but I had a general idea of where it broke. How much was the question."

The biggest and most satisfying break was into the hole.

Kinney said she doesn't mind sharing the title with Nealy, who last week won the SOC title. In that match, Kinney had a one-shot lead slip away at the 18th when she missed a five-footer for par and Nealy countered with a 30-foot birdie.

"She has been playing really well the last few tournaments," said Kinney. "She's hitting the ball really great. I was not too awful surprised to see her up there after the first day."

Similarly, no one was surprised to see both of them there at the end.

Team Scores

St. Mary's 664, Lakeridge 670, Glencoe 707, Mountian View 711, Bend 714, Grants Pass 719, Barlow 727, Crescent Valley 740, Tualatin 746, Central Catholic 761, Tigard 763, South Medford 769, Lincoln 783, Sprague 792, Sheldon 798, Wilson 823, Lake Oswego 839, South Eugene 858.

Top 15 Individuals

Johnna Nealy, Grants Pass, 148; Tai Kinney, North Medford, 148; Kailin Downs, Mt. View, 153; Jeana Lee, St. Mary's, 157; Kelley Groff, Sprague, 159; Molly Edmunds, Glencoe, 161; Taryn Haladay, Lakeridge, 161; Alex Lee, Lakeridge, 161; Kristen Svicarovich, Glencoe, 162; Nikki Mack, St. Mary's, 164; Cassie Castleman, St. Mary's, 165; Tracy Hancock, Jesuit, 166; Jamie Horton, Tualatin, 166; Abby Fowler, South Medford, 167; Meagan Hoover, Barlow, 170.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail