Matthew Cleary wasn’t nervous on the biggest stage in Delaware high school golf.
The Tower Hill freshman faced off against Tatnall freshman Davis Mitchell in a sudden-death playoff for the individual title in the DIAA Golf State Tournament on May 29 at Rock Manor Golf Club in Wilmington.
Cleary played the 359-yard, par-4 first hole exactly the way architect Lester George drew it up. A mid-iron off the tee to the corner of the dogleg, a short iron to the green and two putts for an easy par. When Mitchell bogeyed, Cleary was crowned the champion and also earned the honor as The News Journal’s High School Golfer of the Year.
“I was feeling really confident with my ballstriking at the time,” Cleary said. “I stepped on the first tee and hit a really good iron, then just knocked it in the middle of the green and played it smart. I wanted to let him make the mistake, not me.”
Cleary had been under pressure throughout the final round, after a 3-under-par 68 in the opening round gave him a three-stroke lead over Salesianum’s Ryan Rucinski and a five-shot margin over Mitchell and Caesar Rodney’s Samantha Leite. Cleary reached 5-under par in the first round before making bogeys on two of the last three holes.
“I didn’t really have any expectations,” he said. “I was just going out there to do my best. I knew that with my game, I’ve been pretty strong lately and my ballstriking was good. I knew when everything came together I could shoot a low number like that.”
The Wilmington Country Club member started the final round with two pars, then got out of sync.
“I lost my game a little bit,” Cleary said. “I three-putted, and then I guess I got a little nervous and a little anxious. I started hitting a few bad shots.”
He got it back to together on the par-5 10th hole, even though Mitchell did him one better. Mitchell blasted a 235-yard 3-wood into the hole for a rare double-eagle 2. But no one in the group knew that had happened when Cleary stepped up to his third shot, using a 58-degree sand wedge from 90 yards out.
“We actually didn’t know Davis’ ball was in the hole,” Cleary said. “… I hit, and Davis was standing up on the green looking for his ball, not knowing where it was. I holed it, and then he goes to look in the hole to get my ball out, and his ball is in there. It was really cool.”
The eagle pumped up Cleary and got his emotions back on track.
“The 10th hole really drove me and made me think I was right back in it,” he said. “I felt really confident after that. I ended up playing well after that.”
Cleary hit the par-5 18th green in two shots and two-putted for a birdie and a 77 for a 145 total. Mitchell shot a 72 in the final round to tie him and set up the playoff.
At 5,980 yards from the white tees, Rock Manor is a short, tight course with plenty of obstacles. That wouldn’t seem to suit the powerful Cleary, who said he averages 310 yards with his driver, but Tower Hill coach Kathy Franklin knew he could control his game.
“I knew he was a good, solid player,” Franklin said of Cleary. “I thought he had as good a shot as anyone. … He’s a smart player. He knows when to take risks and when not to.”
Franklin is impressed with Cleary’s game, but she was even more impressed with the sportsmanship displayed by Cleary and Mitchell at the conclusion of the playoff.
“Those two kids were so great,” Franklin said. “They took their hats off, they shook each other’s hands. … It was just really neat to see two freshmen kids down there, just looking like they were 50 years old as far as their mannerisms on the course. They both showed a lot of respect for the game and did a great job.”
Cleary plans to play golf almost every day this summer with his brother Ryan, 17, who just finished his sophomore year at Tower Hill and tied for 11th in the state tournament. He hopes to qualify for the U.S. Junior Amateur and plans to play in other local and regional tournaments.
Cleary also qualified for the DIAA swim meet for Tower Hill, but golf is his first love.
“I really like being in clutch positions,” Cleary said. “I really like the feeling of competing not only against the players, but against the course.”
He capped his freshman year with a clutch performance.