MANCHESTER — Over the years, Ricky Jones has learned to block out the distractions and play his own game.
Taking a lead into the final round of a golf tournament and maintaining it isn’t always easy, particularly when a pursuer birdies three of the first four holes.
“I knew I was playing well,” said Jones. “I just had to stay in my own game and shoot even or 1 over. If I did that, someone was really going to have to shoot a low round.”
Someone did shoot a low round: Tommy Stirling of Gorham made seven birdies en route to a 67.
But it wasn’t quite enough.
Jones kept to his plan Thursday and fired a final-round 71 to win his third Maine Amateur championship by two shots over Stirling at Augusta Country Club.
Jones, 41, said he’s learned to keep his composure and not worry about what someone else is doing.
“I’m a lot smarter and things don’t bother me as much,” said Jones. “When you’re younger you want to get the first title so bad. The first one is always the hardest to get. I know the butterflies are going to come on the first tee. You just go out and play your game.”
Jones, who shot rounds of 66, 67 and 71 for a 54-hole total of 6-under 204, carried a six-stroke lead into the final round.
Stirling, 20, had scores of 69, 70 and 67.
The third member of the final threesome, Ryan Gay of the host club, struggled with his tee shots and other parts of his game and shoot a final-round 74 after opening with 69-70. He finished at 213.
Gay tied for fourth with Sam Grindle, a recent Deer Isle–Stonington High graduate who had rounds of 72,69, and 72.
J.J. Harris of Bath grabbed third place with a final-round 69 for a 212 total.
Jack Wyman of the Portland Country Club rounded out the top six with a 214 total. Mark Plummer, a 13-time champion from the host club, was next at 216.
Jones won his other Maine Amateur titles in match play in 2003 and 2004.
“This is the biggest tournament in the state for us,” said Jones. “Winning gives you bragging rights as the best amateur in the state.”
It was also sweet redemption for Jones from the last time the state amateur was at Augusta in 2001, also in match play.
“I lost to Mark Plummer in extra holes,” he said.
Of his final round, Jones said: “It was just a consistent round. I was just aiming for the middle of the greens and trying to two-putt.”
The suspense was supplied by Stirling, who won an individual national championship while playing for Southern Maine Community College two years ago. Stirling will be a senior at Division II Southwest Oklahoma State, where he is in the top five on the golf team.
Stirling birdied three of his first four holes and whittled Jones’ lead down to two shots after eight holes.
Then came rain and a 45-minute delay. When play resumed, Stirling three-putted the ninth hole and double-bogeyed the 10th, when he pushed his drive into the trees, had to punch out on the par-4 hole, then hit two fat shots short of the green.
Stirling rebounded with a birdie on 11, and added birdies on 15, 17 and 18 around a bogey on 16.
“I knew even par wouldn’t be enough because Ricky wasn’t going to slip up,” said Stirling.
“Basically I wanted to keep the ball in play and make as many birdies as I could. I don’t believe the rain delay bothered me. I was still focused. I had one slip- up on 10. I did the best I could. I had a blast.”
After Stirling made 6 on No. 10 and Jones parred for a two-shot swing, Jones said later: “I thought I was on cruise control. Then he birdies 11. He kept throwing birdies at me. He would make a mistake and then make a birdie.”
Jones made only one birdie but it was timely, coming on the uphill par-4 12th after Stirling birdied 11.
Jones said it was nice playing the par-5 18th with a three-shot lead. He hit his tee shot in the left rough and laid up on his second shot.
“Walking up 18 after I put my third shot on the green, it kind of hits you,” said Jones. “You know you can three-putt and win.”
Stirling almost changed that plan when his chip shot from 30 yards lipped out for an eagle. He made the 4-footer for birdie. Jones then tapped in for par and the two-shot margin.
Tom Chard can be contacted at 791-6419 or at [email protected]