Clark Craig

Fairmont Senior's Clark Craig lines up a putt at the Regional I golf tournament at Green Hills Country Club.

FAIRMONT — As he stepped into the tee box on the first hole of the Jones Course at Oglebay Resort on Tuesday in the final tournament of his high school career, Fairmont Senior’s Clark Craig embarked on perhaps the most challenging mission of his tenure with the Polar Bears.

He was trying to outdo himself.

“The thing about Clark Craig is he’s always working, he’s always trying to better himself,” said Fairmont Senior coach Luke Corley, who’s seen Craig’s high school career unfold first hand every step of the way. “He wants to be the best golfer that he can possibly be.”

But there was Craig, set to tee off in his fourth state tournament in as many years, with a daunting task ahead of him. To stay true to Corley’s word and top his own previous performance, Craig needed to make history – again.

The last time Craig played a round at the state tournament entering Tuesday, he shot an incredible course record 67 as he surged to one of the greatest Day 2 comebacks of all-time. On the back nine alone, Craig shot a scorching 4-under 31, including birdies on each of his last three holes to make up a three-stroke deficit and force a sudden-death playoff with Pikeview High’s Carson Proffitt.

The state tourney rally, which ultimately fell short when Proffitt birdied the third playoff hole for the individual state title, was a snapshot of Craig’s career.

For all the accolades he’s collected through the years – four state tournament appearances, two all-state nods (2017 and 2018), a state runner-up (2018), Big 10 Player of the Year (2019) – Craig has always been defined by something more, a sort of indefinable gamesmanship that has captured the essence of golf.

He’s a purist when it comes to ball striking, an innately smooth, but big hitter off the tee with top tier accuracy. His short game is a true art form, a series of deft chips from wackadoo angles to save face with up-and-down scrambles when he does encounter danger. And his putting is the byproduct of sheer blue-collar work honing his stroke for hours on the practice green.

“He’s always playing golf,” Corley said. “Hard work, dedication, staying hungry, leadership...all of those things, it’s all there.”

Talk to anyone around or associated with golf and they’ll tell you cut-and-dried – the way to get good at golf is to play golf, pure and simple. There are no shortcuts, no drills or skills training sessions. Professional lessons and coaching can help, but to crest truly ground-breaking benchmarks requires a roll-up-the-sleeves commitment to the grind.

For example, over the summer, Craig said he played a ton of tournament golf, including a breakthrough debut in the West Virginia Amateur at The Greenbrier where he made the cut with shot a 77-74-81-76 over the four rounds.

“I think it’s about reps, but there’s definitely a confidence (factor) too,” Craig said regarding his progress. Ideally, the first seeps into the second out of a combination of self-assessment and self-improvement.

“I’ll look back on a round and find where my mistakes are,” Craig said. “Like if it was with chipping, I’ll go out and chip for about an hour. Or if it was putting, I’ll take a video of my putting stroke and see what’s wrong with it.”

A little polishing up on his putting here and a touch more craft in his short game there and Craig has sculpted a deep and versatile skill set to go toe-to-toe with any course.

But the most endearing set of qualities packed within Craig’s core traits as a golfer are his intangibles, Corley said.

Craig has learned how to ward off the mental drawbacks so prevalent within the game via his natural coming of age, a cycle most high-volume golfers experience at least to a degree.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve definitely realized how to calm down and get it back,” he said. “It kind of comes with growing up I guess.”

But Craig has gone sort of a step beyond simply keeping his head in that department. There’s the maturity and the composure, sure, but there’s a spirit to Craig that’s unique, that, like in last season’s state tournament, means you should never count him out. It’s almost like he’s unbreakable, a fighter who never stops battling back.

“He is the most consistent golfer I’ve ever coached,” said Corley. “Even when he’s hitting it bad, he knows how to score and not give up strokes.”

It’s that ability to always stay in a round or in a tournament that encapsulates the heart of Craig’s game. It’s not just his superb adroitness in nearly every aspect of his game – ball striking, approach shots, short game, putting – nor just his measured maturity, it’s the fusion of the two into an all-encompassing, unwavering force.

“I’ve been able to stay in rounds even when I’m playing bad,” said Craig, with his regional runner-up round of 74 on a day when his ball striking slipped a bit, he said, as an example. “My freshman year if I had a double or triple bogey, I probably would’ve just kind of cashed in, but I’ve learned I can bounce back at any time and birdie any hole out there.”

That completeness and power in Craig’s game eventually all circles back to the potential pathway in which he may be able to top himself from a year ago and help deliver a state championship to the Polar Bears, who hold an 11-stroke lead over North Marion after a team-best round of 82 from Craig on Day 1 of the state tournament.

“If even when he’s hitting it bad, he can still score,” Corley said, “then when he’s hitting it good, he’s going low.”

Email Bradley Heltzel at bheltzel@timeswv.com or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.

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