Phoenix High has found its comfort zone.
It's wherever J.T. Compher is.
The Pirate junior golfer had a hand in two of the school's best finishes at the state tournament the past two seasons, and with his improved play this year and a strong supporting cast that has nary a senior, it doesn't look like the run is going to end soon.
Compher has led the Pirates to a big a lead halfway through the Skyline Conference season. They have a 60-shot advantage through three matches, with one regular-season event left, then the two-day district tournament.
Similar to last year, Compher, a gifted ball striker who admits his putting has held him back a bit this spring, has been the Pirates' low man all season. He has a scoring average of 78.7 in league matches and 77 overall. In Skyline play, he leads two teammates — juniors Paul Stanfield (79.3) and Jesse Taylor (79.7) — in individual scoring. They are the only three league players under 80. Sophomore Daniel Engle and junior Sam Howell round out Phoenix's top five players.
The Pirates were sixth at state two years ago, with Compher placing 17th to lead the way. Last season, both he and the team placed second. Compher shot 149 over two days at the Eagle Crest course near Redmond. He tied with two others for second behind then-senior Jesse Schutte of Siuslaw, who became only the second three-time winner in Class 3A history.
Phoenix coach Kyle Walker is excited about the team's prospects this year and next, particularly after the Pirates finished only five shots behind champion Marist in 2006.
"It's golf and you've got to go play," he says, "but we can compete at the state level."
There are a handful of teams, including Marist and perennial power Sisters, "that have the ability on days when they're playing well to put up state-championship numbers," says Walker. "It just depends on who does it those days. We'll see. We should be at the tournament and we should be able to compete with those teams."
Especially with Compher in the fold.
After last year's showing and extensive play in the junior ranks last summer, he has his sights set on the state title.
"I've been hitting the ball really good and scoring," says Compher, who is 5-foot-7, 125 pounds. "I'd like to be shooting scores a little lower, but I'm pretty happy so far."
His best prep round is a 66 at Quail Point, and he shot 69 last summer in a tournament at Rogue Valley Country Club. But with testy weather conditions much of this spring, his best round of the season is a 75 at Bandon Dunes despite playing seven holes in what Walker says was "some of the worst weather I've been in."
And were it not for putting woes, he could have gone low at Shield Crest in Klamath Falls on Tuesday. He had a 5-over-par 77 but three-putted six greens.
"I really shouldn't be doing that at all," says Compher. "Putting has always held me back. It's really streaky. There are days when I putt good and days when I putt horrible."
When he's putting well, Compher has a chance to go low because of his ball striking ability. He took up the game six years ago at age 11, tagging along with his father, Gil, to the driving range. Gil showed his son the proper grip and swing, and J.T. — which stands for Joshua Thomas — took it from there.
"It's an addicting game," says J.T.
Eventually, his swing evolved into one distinguished by a full turn and fluid, relaxed movement through the ball. On the driving range, says Walker, it's easy to tell who Compher is by the consistency with which he hits balls.
"He hits the ball 10 to 15 feet from the pin regardless of whether he's hitting a 3-iron or 8-iron," says Walker, characterizing his ace's adept ball striking. "To do that, you have to make solid contact all the time. No matter what club he's swinging, it's solid and all his shots have the same flight path. It's not a case where one's a fade, another is a hook. They're all pretty much the same. Off-center hits, he just doesn't have many."
When he does, says Walker, Compher, like his teammates, can get creative around the greens.
"These kids have a lot of imagination when it comes to getting up and down," says Walker.
Compher exhibited his ball striking last summer during the "Beat the Pro" contest at area golf courses. At Quail Point, he put his shot closer than any other player on the par-3 fourth hole. Then in the season-ending horse race at Centennial — against a field of "kinda older guys," he says — he defeated the other weekly winners. The caveat was he had to turn down the grand prize to protect his amateur status.
He hopes, however, professional status is in his future. Compher would like to attend college on a golf scholarship and eventually try mini tours or enroll in a golf academy that molds industry professionals.
Either way, he'd be in his comfort zone.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail email@example.com