Senior James Fenner stood on the seventh hole of Rockford’s Aldeen Golf Club knowing he had to make a move. A stroke behind the leader entering the final round of the Midwest Conference Tournament, Fenner was on the cusp of achieving the goal he had been striving for since Bobbi Stuebi ‘12 won the individual title for Knox two years ago. It’s why he was shocked to hear the words from Head Coach K.C. Harding.
‘Don’t push yet,’ Harding said, reminding Fenner to continue playing conservative for as long as possible.
It was not until the 16th hole that Harding would give the green light to start taking some risks. Fenner proceeded to birdie the par five 16th and 18th holes en route to being crowned the Midwest Conference Champion.
“In the past I would have been going for it, trying to get the strokes back right away.” Fenner said, “I think that the change in mentality was huge in my success this year.”
As a freshman, Fenner played his final round with the eventual champion. The following season he was there to congratulate Stuebi as a teammate, and this year his entire season revolved around winning.
“The night before I was trying to get a good night’s sleep, and I ended up laying in bed for two hours just thinking about it,” Fenner said.
While the birdies on the final two par fives were the highlights on the scorecard, according to Fenner they would have been for naught without a clutch par save on the par three 15th. After putting his tee shot on the green, Fenner pushed his birdie putt eight feet past the whole.
“I stood over that [par] putt and looked at it for a long time,” Fenner said. “I thought, ‘You need to make this if you want a chance.’ When it went in, that gave me confidence going into 16.”
When Fenner signed off on his second consecutive 75 there was still plenty of doubt in his mind. The players from the schools competing for the team championship had teed off over an hour after Fenner and still had plenty of opportunities to pass him up. But competitors faded as more and more fell victim to the water that lined Aldeen’s 18th fairway.
“I watched kid after kid after kid put it in the water on 18, so I was thinking, ‘Those are precious strokes, maybe I have a good chance at this,’” Fenner said. “When scores in the 80’s were coming in, that was good for me.”
When the final scores were tallied Fenner stood as champion by four strokes, a result indicative of Fenner’s familiarity and comfort with Aldeen.
“I had high school tournaments there, so I had gotten used to playing it before coming to Knox,” Fenner said. “It’s a ball-strikers course, especially on the back nine. People tend to struggle on the back nine, but I love it.”
After his scoring average finished above 80 for the first time in his college career last season, Fenner finished a disappointing eighth in the conference tournament. This season Fenner intensified his practice regiment in the weeks leading up to the conference tournament.
“I emphasized my putting stroke. I was practicing somewhere in the neighborhood of five to six hours each day for the last month and a half,” he said.
The victory was ultimately the culmination of a career that did not begin with such lofty expectations.
“I would love to say I came in as a freshman saying, ‘By the time I’m a senior I’ll have won the conference championship,’ I think in reality I wanted it but did not believe I could pull it off,” Fenner said.
For now Fenner is all about putting things in perspective.
“To be able to be on the same level as some of the players that have won in the past is just amazing.”