NEWTON, Kan. – Exactly one year ago, Easton Paxton was getting ready to play in the second round of the Callaway Junior World Golf Championships at Morgan Run Club & Resort in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Then 14, Paxton was looking to improve on his eighth-place finish in the 13-14-year-old division the previous year.
Before the round, he learned that his mother, Kara, had lost her four-year battle against brain cancer. Several days previously, knowing that his mother’s death was imminent, Paxton had said goodbye in the hospice before leaving for California.
She wanted me to play, recalled Paxton. That was typical of her. But I just couldn’t. It was too difficult.
Paxton returned home to Riverton, Wyo., but he did fulfill his mother’s wish and played in the U.S. Junior Amateur at Martis Camp Club in Truckee, Calif., the following week.
She felt very strongly about it, said Paxton’s father, Curt. She always said, ‘I never want my cancer to interfere with Easton’s future.’
Paxton missed the cut for match play at Martis Camp. But in the year since, he has taken numerous steps toward developing his game. He won the Wyoming high school championship by 11 strokes as a freshman, and won the state’s match play championship earlier this year. He also reached U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying.
And at the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Sand Creek Station Golf Course, Paxton, 15, tied for 17th in stroke-play qualifying before reaching the second round of match play, losing to defending champion Jordan Niebrugge, 4 and 2, on Thursday.
I didn’t hit the ball very well today, said Paxton, who led Niebrugge after nine holes. He started pouring the putts in on the back nine, and that was the difference-maker.
When Niebrugge shifted into a higher gear with a run of five birdies in seven holes starting on the 10th hole, Paxton didn’t have the horsepower to keep up. Still, in his first big test on a national stage, Paxton found a lot of positives and relished the experience.
I learned that I could compete with anybody, even when I didn’t have my best stuff, said Paxton. That was a big eye-opener and that gives me confidence going into the U.S. Junior, knowing that I competed with some upper-level competition. I had to prove that myself.
As much as the shots that he hits, what strikes those who see Paxton play is the composure and maturity that he demonstrates on the course. In May, he impressed former tour pro David Ogrin, who finished five strokes behind Paxton during U.S. Open Local Qualifying last year.
There is always talk of who the next guy is, Ogrin wrote on his website. At least in my opinion and observation, there is a good chance that I have met the next guy.
Oklahoma State assistant coach Brian Guetz, who caddied for Niebrugge, noted Paxton’s composure and maturity, and went out of his way to compliment the 15-year-old after the match, which ended on the 16th green. Niebrugge and Guetz walked back to the clubhouse, while Paxton and his caddie, his uncle Rick, hitched rides on a cart. After getting out of the cart, Paxton took his bag from his uncle and headed directly to the driving range to work on his swing.
Paxton is playing in the U.S. Junior Amateur next week in The Woodlands, Texas, and wanted to make sure he was ready. After several shots, Guetz marched over to tell Paxton how much his conduct impressed him.
Guetz might have been more impressed had he known about the anniversary of Kara’s death. Certainly, the adversity Paxton faced during her battle with cancer accelerated his growth.
[My mom’s illness] just opened my eyes, he said. Golf is just a game. It’s a game that I love, and a lot of people do, but there are a lot of bigger, better things out there. It’s just a game; it’s not life.
Conversely, Paxton’s personality no doubt helped him cope with his difficult circumstances. Even before his mother became ill, Paxton impressed his teacher, Steven Johnson, the head professional at Riverton Country Club, with his discipline, focus and an indefatigable work ethic.
If I told him that it would take 23 hours a day of practice to get to the next level, said Johnson, Easton would be at the golf course 23 hours a day.
In addition to Johnson’s mentoring, Paxton has benefited from a large support system of family and friends, including his uncle Rick, who has taken him to events like the Public Links. Paxton’s father is an insurance agent and often can’t find the time to travel, and his mother had been his chaperone until she became sick.
She was my travel buddy, said Paxton. She took me everywhere. It’s crazy and unbelievable how supportive the community has been to us. I’m so thankful that people like my uncle Rick and other people have taken me to tournaments and helped me chase my dreams.
During Paxton’s match against Niebrugge, Curt, who was back in Wyoming, was following the progress on usga.org until he had to go into an hour-long meeting. During the meeting, he snuck peeks on his phone for updates from Johnson, who was texting him the hole-by-hole results.
The match ended while Curt was still in his meeting. Despite the result, the pride that Curt felt for his oldest son could be felt 800 miles away in Newton.
Easton has worked so hard and he has dealt with so much with such grace and integrity, said Curt, who will travel to the U.S. Junior with Easton’s younger brothers, Treyton and Parker. I’m so pleased to see him rewarded and take a big step toward his dreams. I am so proud of the young man that he has become.
Although father and son didn’t talk in the morning, they did acknowledge the anniversary of Kara’s death during a call on Wednesday night. Curt was worried about his son’s emotional state, but Easton assuaged him.
I’ll forget all about it when I’m on the course, he reassured his father.
In the morning, Easton found it difficult to forget, especially since he carries reminders during every round. He has written PFK – Play for Kara – on his headcovers and marks his ball with the three letters.
I was trying to win, but it was impossible not to let it slip into your mind, he said. She taught me to never give up. That definitely stuck in my mind a few times. It was an emotional day.
I know she’s watching today. And she’s proud.
Hunki Yun is the director of strategic projects for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.