---- — NEOGA — Luke Baker still has the scorecard from the first time he played golf – a 26-over-par nine holes he played with a hybrid, a 9-iron and a putter because he didn't own a set of clubs.
That was no more than two years ago and now Baker can't remember the last time he wasn't on the course, catching the fever on the day of one of his two worst rounds – he said the round after his 26-over-par day was worse.
“I loved it, as soon as I started,” Baker said. “You see people go out the first time and get so mad because you know (the ball) is supposed to go straight, but it goes right or it goes left.”
Baker said he wasn't the recreational player who lost his composure after a bad shot, which has been his meal ticket all the way to today's Sectionals in Danville.
The layers of challenges on a golf course interested him from day one, Baker said, because it was different than other sports, especially basketball.
“If you're a really good shooter, you're good at basketball, or if you're a good dribbler, you're considered good at basketball,” Baker said. “In golf, you can hit (the ball) down the middle every time, but if you can't chip or putt or hit irons then you're not good at golf. It's a game, inside of a game, inside of a game.”
Baker is always playing golf; in fact, the 16-year-old said his days and driving patterns are simple and routine, driving to school, the golf course and “maybe McDonald's.”
His life hasn't been the same since he fell in love with the game two years ago and convinced the Neoga School Board to allow him to play competitively for Neoga High School, which didn't have a golf team until Baker stepped forward as a freshman.
In July 2012, Baker, his father Randy and school administrators , discussed the idea of establishing a golf team with the school board and the board voted to allow Baker to play in the regional tournament, but not matches.
He kept his ball from regionals, too, because he advanced to sectionals last year and said that proved to the school board that he should be playing competitively on a regular basis.
“They saw how good I did last year and that I'm not somebody they can just forget about,” Baker said.
This year, Baker was allowed a full golf schedule, traveling to tournaments as the only player on the Neoga golf team and playing well – he finished third at last week's Cumberland regional tournament.
“It's different,” Baker said of being the only player on the team. “You see (other teams) pull up in their vans and they're all pumped. I just drive home in my car.”
As a high school student, Baker recognizes that his schedule is a little different and sometimes limiting, but he said he aspires to play golf in college and knows he has to work to pursue his dream.
“A lot of sacrifices,” Baker said. “I've missed a lot of birthday parties, a lot of events I probably should have gone to. I chose to go play golf.”
His sleep schedule takes a hit, too, especially on summer vacation. He'll wake up a 5:30 a.m. most summer days to play a round of golf or practice at the driving range before it's too hot outside.
In August, Baker shot a round of 65 – the best he's ever played – and remembers sinking a 25-foot putt from the fringe of the green on the 17th hole at Fox Prairie in Windsor. He lipped out on the 18th hole, which would've given him a 64.
“It feels like that's what I should do every round,” Baker said. “Why can't I do that every day?”
He keeps memorabilia like the 26-over-par card and his Regionals ball so he can remember what he's done in the past. You can bet he kept the 65 card, too.
Alex McNamee can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or firstname.lastname@example.org.