CUMBERLAND — Conner Paine is determined to find out how good he can become at golf.

On Wednesday, the 18-year-old from South China was plenty good enough to win the Maine State Golf Association Junior Championship.

Paine fired a 1-under 71 at Val Halla Golf Course to finish the two-round tournament at 5-under 139, eight strokes ahead of Caleb Manuel of Topsham and Bennett Berg of Portland. Berg won the 13-15 division by 12 strokes. Tom Higgins of South Portland, a shot back to start Wednesday’s round, followed his opening-round 69 with an 85 and finished sixth.

“Caleb is a really, really good player and so is Tom but I didn’t care what they shot,” Paine said. “I didn’t care if they beat me. I was just trying to shoot under-par. That was my goal. I just wanted to shoot 1-under par.”

Andrew Klein of Cumberland Center and Cade Charron of Topsham finished tied for third in the 16-18 division (4th overall) at 7-over. Mitchell Tarrio of Augusta was fifth at 8-over.

In the seven-player girls’ competition, 14-year-old Mia Hornberger improved on her first-round lead and finished with a two-day total of 79-76-155 (11-over), six strokes ahead of defending champion Rachel Smith of Cumberland. Smith was the winner of the 16-18 division.

Paine shot 68 in the first round, then took control on Wednesday with an eagle-birdie combination at the fourth and fifth holes, stretching his lead to six strokes over Higgins and seven over Manuel.

“I made like a 20-footer on five and once I made that, I was like, ‘I’m seven-under for the tournament now and even if I make a couple of bogeys, I mean who cares, I can still make some birdies and shoot a good score,'” Paine said. “It kind of took some pressure off me to hit good shots off the tee, which can be kind of tough here.”

Manuel, the 2018 high school Class A champion, was coming off a tied for 10th finish at the New England Amateur. He struggled with his putting en route to a 3-over 75.

“I was waiting to maybe make back-to-back birdies here or there. The putter kind of let me down today,” Manuel said, “but Conner was steady the whole time.”

Paine, who graduated from Erskine Academy, intends to take a gap year before college to focus on improving his golf game. He plans to relocate to the Sarasota, Florida, area, live with a family friend, “and pretty much to play 10 to 12 hours a day and give it everything I have.” The goal is to play college golf at a high-profile program.

Paine says some people have told him his unusual path is “not super-smart.” But, he has support from his parents, will use tutors to keep his math and science skills sharp, and the personal belief he can keep improving. In 2018, he placed ninth at the MSGA Junior Championship with a two-round 13-over at Brunswick Golf Club.

“For me, I just don’t see how I wouldn’t get better playing 10 to 12 hours a day,” Paine said.

Hornberger also will be moving to Florida. An incoming high school freshman, she and her family are relocating to Claremont, Florida, primarily to be closer to her mother Prudence’s family. A side benefit for the lanky teenager with a consistent all-around game will be escaping Maine’s winters.

“I usually lose my game during the winter,” Hornberger said.

Hornberger had a two-stroke lead over Smith and Ruby Haylock to start the round but was unaware she could actually win the overall tournament until informed by an MSGA official after her tee shot on the first hole.

“I thought I could just win the 13-15 division. It put a little more pressure on me,” she said.

It didn’t show. She played a steady 2-over on both the front and the back nines, with one birdie against five bogeys.

“I wasn’t expecting to play this well and win because Rachel and Ruby are both great players,” Hornberger said.


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