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Thanks to the intervention of Mother Nature Friday  — in the form of a freak snowstorm in Central Illinois — every single golfer participating in the Class 3A Illinois High School Asociation state tournament received the ultimate mulligan.

Evanston’s Tommy Barbato was one of those who made the most of his “do-over” opportunity.

Barbato, a senior, carded a 4-over par score of 76 when tournament play resumed Saturday at The Den at Fox Creek Golf Course in Bloomington and earned a tie for 31st  place in the individual standings.

Barbato’s finish was one of the best in ETHS school history and the best since Jackson Mihevc placed 11th in 2013. He matched the 76s turned in by Reece Tennison of Normal University High, Perry Hoag of Homewood-Flossmoor, Charlie Busch of Prospect, Conan Pan of Stevenson, and Jack Marshall of Lake Forest.

Lockport sophomore Ben Sluzas won the individual state title with a 68.

Barbato’s 37-39 performance included just one birdie, on the No. 5 hole, as he turned in one of the lowest scores of his high school career. But he might have been on track for an even lower number if the weather hadn’t turned worse on Friday.

After 8 holes, the ETHS standout was 3-over-par. Then the snow started flying and he triple-bogeyed the last hole before tournament officials pulled all of the golfers off the course and decided to start over again and reduce the tournament to just 18 holes.

Ironically, for the first time in the history of the tournament, the IHSA had previously decided to institute a “cut” in the field after the first 18 holes in a vote by coaches because of past inclement weather and a pace of play that required as much as 6 hours per golfer to finish a round.

That policy won’t take effect until next year, as it turned out.

“It was beyond an unusual weekend,” admitted Evanston assistant coach Sean Bostrom, who guided Barbato through the two-day endurance test while head coach Jed Curtis remained at his wife’s side following surgery last week. “The whole thing was really bizarre.

“I know it’s not unexpected to have inclement weather at the state finals, but I don’t think they’ve ever had a whiteout like that. By the time we got to the 9th hole of the day the rain and snow were coming down sideways, and by the time Tommy got to the green on that hole, you couldn’t actually SEE green. You could lose the ball in the middle of the fairway.

“Tommy was really grinding hard up to that point, and except for one bad swing on the 11th hole, he was in a zone. Then on his 9th hole (No. 18) he hit two bad shots in a row, and you could tell that his hands were red and frozen and he had no control of his swing. Even in those conditions, he was playing phenomenal golf.”

“It was kinda surreal,” Barbato said. “I’m just happy now that it’s all over. I talked to Coach Curtis before we went down and he told me you’ve played in weather like this in baseball and you know how to handle it. I knew I could get through it after that. But once it started snowing, that really threw me off. I’ve never played golf in a full-blown snowstorm before. That was a new experience for me.

“When we looked at a possible cut (eliminating as much as one-third of the potential field), we thought I’d have to be sub-80 to make it, and I’d be good. I was actually relieved when they called us off because I’d had a few poor swings that would’ve hurt my chances, so I got to start totally fresh. And mentally I was able to take that good stretch of holes I’d had with me into Saturday.

“I played a solid round on Saturday, with only a couple of mistakes, and I was definitely happy with that score. My driving was erratic most of the season, but it got better and better at the end and I was able to pull my driver back out of the bag again. I did extra work and it really paid off.”

Bostrom, who also played golf during his Evanston career, said Barbato’s ability to grind and persevere set him apart from other golfers he has seen coming through the ETHS program.

“On Saturday, the pace was incredibly slow and Tommy had to grind really hard through the first 6 holes. It was really mentally draining,” the coach pointed out. “Except for one unfortunate hiccup (a 3-putt hole) on the 18th hole, Tommy didn’t make a single mistake that he couldn’t recover from. He hit some incredible shots.

“There’s no doubt that his strength has always been his ability to grind. He had so much confidence in himself from the start that he’d often try to hit a lot of shots where there was only a 1 percent chance of success. But by his senior year, he could pull those shots off, and he really grew into his game. And in the last 3 or 4 weeks he turned the corner and he found a different gear.”

Dennis Mahoney

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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