ELLINGTON — When you’re as successful as Ellington High golfer Bradley Sawka is, there’s one thing that will always keep you humble: failure.
In the midst of a strong junior season with the Knights, the 16-year-old right-hander had to deal with failure at a local US Open Championship qualifying round May 2 at Wee Burn Country Club in Darien.
Sawka was tied for sixth with a 2-over-par 74 before losing a playoff, dropping from one of the nine qualifying positions to the second alternate spot in the process.
“I can remember every single shot,” Sawka said. “Just the mistakes that I made. But it’s always a learning experience. You just have to keep getting better and not make those mistakes again.”
Success has followed Sawka throughout his career, a career that began right about the time he could walk.
But it was around the age of 12 when he was a junior golfer at Ellington Ridge Country Club that Sawka began to realize how good he was.
“A few high schoolers brought me under their wing and I played with them a lot,” he said. “As I got older, I started competing with them. I was probably three or four years younger and I was competing with them. So I knew I had something special.”
Sawka continued to hone his craft as a junior golfer, including winning the 2017 PGA Junior Golf Association Player of the Year award in the boys 12-and-under division.
He was set to make the transition to the Ellington High team in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic ended the season before it began.
Sawka continued to play despite the cancellation of the high school season, including finishing tied for 28th at the 2020 Connecticut Junior PGA Championship.
“I don’t think there was much of a transition (to high school golf) because at my level of golf, I play a lot of individual events,” Sawka said. “But I definitely missed freshman year. I think we would’ve probably won the state championship.”
Sawka had a breakout season for the Knights in 2021. As the team’s top golfer, he finished tied for third with a 4-over 75 to lead the Knights to a sixth-place finish in Division III championship June 7 at Stanley Golf Course in New Britain.
“I’ve had a lot of great golfers, and he is certainly one of the best,” Ellington High coach Michael Stiles said. “He’s really a phenomenal golfer and a phenomenal teammate.”
Five days later, he was the runner-up at the State Open with an even-par 71 at Black Hall Golf Club in Old Lyme.
“It felt pretty good,” Sawka said. “There were a lot of good players in the State Open. I played with all of them throughout juniors, so it was a lot of fun to see them again. But just knowing that I could compete with them, that was a really good feeling. ”
Stumbling blocks were right around the corner, however. Sawka missed the cut in both the Connecticut Amateur and the Connecticut Junior Amateur that summer.
“It was probably one of the worst feelings ever,” Sawka said. “But that’s the most important thing about sports. You never want to feel that feeling again. So, you just have to keep working hard and make sure that that never happens again.”
But there was also success. Sawka finished fourth at the Connecticut Junior PGA Championship in June and won the American Junior Golf Association UHY Albany Junior Championship at Normanside Country Club in Delmar, New York Aug. 31-Sept. 3. I have finished with a three-round score of 6-under 204, two ahead of second place.
Having success against stiffer competition like he did in the Albany Junior Championship only adds to Sawka’s confidence during his high school season.
“These are just nine-hole matches (in high school), so you can’t really make a lot of mistakes out here,” Sawka said. “But it’s just tournament reps. It’s like anything else. It’s just good practice for high school golf. And this is definitely good practice for the major tournaments too.”
Sawka has been lights out for the Knights this season. His average score for him in seven matches is 35.6, including a low round of 31 at Goodwin Park in Hartford April 25.
Ellington is currently ranked third in Division II behind Killingly and RHAM.
“It all comes down to chipping and putting,” Sawka said. “I mean putting is half your strokes out there in a round. If you can just get the ball down the fairway, on the green and make a few putts, you’ re doing pretty well.”
He also leads the state with a 0.700 differential. Differential is calculated by taking a player’s eight best performances against the course ratings and averaging them. Portland’s Luke Stennett is second with a 2,056 differential.
“He keeps composure,” Stiles said. “He doesn’t get upset with himself to the point where it affects his next shot. He’s very poised on the course and he has skills that go nicely with that.”
Sawka said he hopes to one day play in college. With the talent he has now, Stiles wonders how far he can go in the sport.
“I would love to see him challenge himself as far as a college career and see how far her can take it,” Stiles said. “I think the sky is the limit as long as he wants to keep chasing it.”
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