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Hunter shows he’s mature beyond his years

To answer the pressing question when it comes to Brendan Hunter: Yes, he’s eligible to play in the International Junior Masters.

In fact, he’s playing quite well.

The 17-year-old from Groton, Mass., sports a beard that would make any grown man envious, and has a mature game to match.

Hunter advanced to today’s semifinals in the 61st annual International Junior Masters with a pair of victories Thursday at East Aurora Country Club. He dispatched Scotland’s Niall McMullen, 3 and 2, in the morning round of 16, then went to 19 holes before eliminating Pablo Torres of Colombia in a seesaw quarterfinal match.

“To beat a player of his caliber, it’s a huge confidence builder,” said Hunter, who won with a par on the first extra hole.

Just minutes earlier, there was serious doubt as to whether the match would make it that far. Torres had a look at a 12-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole that could have clinched the match, but slid it by the hole.

“I putted it real well,” he said. “I thought it was going in. It didn’t. It missed by very little, so I was kind of disappointed.”

The 17-year-old Torres, a native of Bogota, had another opportunity to close out the match on the 18th hole. Both players missed the green to the right on their approach shots, but Torres flubbed his chip shot, while Hunter put his to about 3 feet. Torres missed about a 15-footer for par, while Hunter cleaned up his to extend the match.

“I gave it a lot more break than it had, and missed by a lot. We went to a playoff that shouldn’t have been,” Torres said.

Playing the par-4 first hole, Torres’ drive missed the fairway left and left him with no option but to chip out to the fairway. Hunter, meanwhile, striped his drive down the center and hit a perfect gap wedge from 135 yards to about 7 feet left of the hole.

Torres’ third shot was solid, leaving him about a 15-foot look for par, but when that missed, Hunter was able to two-putt for the win.

“I just got lucky, to be honest,” Hunter said. “Pablo is one of the best players I’ve ever seen. I knew if there was any way I was going to win, I’d have to pull something out of a hat.”

After the match was over, Torres and Hunter shared a hug on the first green. It was a welcome show of sportsmanship, especially following an embarrassing incident earlier in the day.

Torres eliminated Canadian Ryan Borg in the morning session in 19 holes. Facing a must-make putt on the first extra hole, the 18-year-old Borg pulled it right. Before the ball had even stopped rolling, he went up to it and smashed it across the green and into the bunker, then slammed his hat to the ground in an unbecoming tantrum.

Borg then immediately left the course.

Too bad for him, as he could have learned something from the afternoon match. Despite being locked in a match in which neither player enjoyed more than a two-hole advantage, Hunter and Torres chatted loosely throughout.

“Golf’s supposed to be fun,” said Hunter, who will attend Division II St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill in the fall.

He’ll have no problem looking the part of a college student.

“For me that’s not too hard. I shaved my whole face for the first time the last day of sixth grade,” he said with a laugh. “People think I’m 25. I think it’s funny. Sometimes it’s a little annoying when I’m at a junior tournament and I have all these parents asking me if I’m actually old enough to play. They do it derogatively sometimes, too.”

The son of a Massachusetts state trooper, Hunter is playing in his second Junior Masters. Reaching the semifinals in a stacked field is already the highlight of his young golfing career.

“It makes all the hard work I put in over the offseason and in the spring feel like it’s paid off,” he said.

As for Torres, he’ll return to Colombia on Saturday, but he’ll be back in the U.S. next month to play in both the U.S. Junior Amateur and Callaway Junior World Golf Championship in California.

“This was a good experience,” he said, “and hopefully it will help me do better there.”