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Topsham golfer, 13, is youngest in Maine Amateur field

By Tom Chard
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BRUNSWICK, Maine -- Wearing his Jordan Spieth golf cap, Caleb Manuel practiced his putting and chipping last week at the Brunswick Golf Club.

It's hard to say just how much practice the 13-year-old was able to get in. One by one, several of the club's many senior members came up to offer him congratulations, a pattern that kept up for several minutes. But Manuel wasn't bothered a bit. He smiled, shook hands and repeated "thank you" more times than he likely got to hit putts or chips.

The congratulations were for Manuel qualifying for the Maine Amateur, which begins Tuesday at the Waterville Country Club in Oakland.

Manuel, who will enter the eighth grade this fall at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham, will be the youngest golfer in the 132-player field.

There's a decided youth movement in the 96th state amateur. Thirty-one players are 20 years old or younger. Ten of those players are junior golfers (age 17 and under), including 14-year-old Austin Legge and 15-year-old Ryan Collins, both of Cape Elizabeth.

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"The average age of the players (in the tournament) was in the 40s for a long time," said Nancy Storey, the executive director of the Maine State Golf Association.

"Now it's in the 30s."

On June 18, in the first of three qualifying tournaments to get into the Maine Amateur, Manuel shot a 79 at Biddeford-Saco Country Club. Forty-one players got into the tournament from the Biddeford-Saco qualifier. The cutoff score to get in was 80.

"I birdied the last hole," said Manuel.

Looking ahead to his first Maine Amateur, Manuel said: "It will be fun but I'll be a little nervous."

Nonetheless, he has ambitions. "My goal is to make the cut," Manuel said. Golfers who make the 36-hole cut automatically qualify for next year's tournament.

Manuel has a 10:20 a.m. starting time Tuesday and is paired with Brent Barker of Bar Harbor and Chad Allen of Windham.

"I told him to just play his game," said 73-year-old Jim Merritt. "He'll do fine."

Merritt knows Manuel's game better than most of Brunswick's members. He played Manuel earlier this summer in a preliminary round of the club championship, a match that may rival the biggest age gap between opponents. It was decided on the viewer-friendly ninth hole, which was played as the 18th for the tournament. A gallery was perched on the clubhouse porch overlooking the 18th green as Manuel won.

Manuel carries a USGA handicap index of 5.4 and his best round at Brunswick Golf Club is 74.

Asked how often he plays, he said succinctly, "I play every day."

A typical summer day for Manuel is to get dropped off at the course around 10 a.m. by his mother, Jill, or father, Pat. Now that his sister, Anna, has her driver's license, she'll sometimes drop him off. Manuel will spend the entire day playing golf with his buddies, Will Kavanaugh and Marcus Steinman. The members love having him around and often will invite him, if he's by himself, to play with them.

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"I love everything about golf," said Manuel. "I love being outdoors and having fun. I love the competition. I love to make up games with my friends or when I'm by myself."

If Manuel isn't playing the course, he's practicing.

"Caleb loves sports," said his mother. "He's driven. When he started playing, he was out in the backyard chipping. We've got ball marks to prove it. He wanted to play. We didn't have to push him."

Manuel started playing at 10 when he would accompany his father to the golf course.

"When we started, we would play five or six holes and Caleb would want to go home," said his father. "After he learned the knack of hitting down on the ball, he's been nonstop ever since."

Manuel was soon playing in Maine State Golf Association junior tournaments. Recently he shot a 71 at Nonesuch River Golf Course in Scarborough and came back the next day to shoot a 75 at Biddeford-Saco.

"Caleb has been in our junior program for a couple of years," said Storey. "As a 12-year old playing in the 13-14 division in the Maine Junior Championship last year, Caleb shot 90-87 to finish eighth."

Manuel said his goal this summer is a top-three finish in the 13-14 division.

One day last week, before being interviewed for this story, Manuel had already spent a couple of hours at Martindale Country Club in Auburn. He was getting lessons from his teacher, Nick Glicos, who runs the Maine Premier Golf League. Manuel would cap off the day by playing a baseball doubleheader for his AAU team, the Screamin' Eagles.

"It's sort of a spinoff of AAU basketball and baseball," said Glicos of the golf league. "It's for young players who are really serious about golf. Caleb is a golf nut. He's addicted. He used to play premier soccer with my son, Evan, but quit that to concentrate on golf.

"We have 18 golfers in the league and Caleb is the leader of the pack. He's worked really hard on his game. His short game is solid and he drives it straight. He's not very big (5-foot-1, 90 pounds), but his tee shots are around 220 to 225 yards."

The last time the Maine Amateur was played at Waterville (2007), 12-year-old Seth Sweet of Madison was the youngest in the tournament. Five years later, Sweet won the Maine Amateur at Sunday River Golf Course. He's now on the golf team at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

Glicos said he could see Manuel as a possible Maine Amateur contender in a few years.

"Absolutely. When someone is that driven and that athletic, the sky is the limit. You can't teach drive and detemination."

While Manuel was standing last week near the putting green, Steve Obrin, another senior member at Brunswick, told him, "Be sure to remember me when you're on the PGA Tour. I'll be asking for some passes to the tournaments."

This article was written by Tom Chard from Portland Press Herald, Maine and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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