Kapaun’s Asher Whitaker cements family legacy with Kansas high school golf title

A tingling sensation overcame Asher Whitaker when he arrived at the No. 17 hole at Sand Creek Station on Tuesday.

Less than two years ago, at the age of 17, it was on this very hole where Whitaker became the youngest Kansas Amateur champion in nearly a century. It was the crowning achievement of the Oklahoma signee’s junior golf career.

The Kapaun Mt. Carmel senior has won just about every high school tournament with one exception: the Class 5A state tournament. So there stood Whitaker, once again sizing up the par-3 named “Horseshoe” on Tuesday with a chance to fill the only void on his otherwise impeccable résumé.

“Something epic is about to happen,” thought Camden Whitaker, his father, in the gallery. “He’s about to do something legendary.”

But to comprehend the immense pressure Asher was under to produce greatness on Tuesday, it requires a more complete understanding of his unique situation.

Asher is the youngest Whitaker of three: his oldest sister, Emma, led the Kapaun girls golf team to four straight team championships and won the individual title her senior year, while his other sister, Clara, won four singles titles in tennis and helped the Crusaders win a team title.

It was never verbalized within the family, but Asher felt an internal pressure to live up to the championship expectation. That made it even more agonizing when he finished runner-up at state the past two years.

“The faculty at school made sure to remind me about how much my sisters won,” Asher said. “I’m really competitive, so I’ve always wanted to win just like they did.”

It was hard not to feel like time was running out at the end of Monday when Asher carded a respectable 2-under round of 70 but trailed the leader by five strokes; Maize South’s Laken Matthews birdied nine times for a 7-under round of 65.

It only took one hole for the entire tenor of Tuesday’s round to change when Asher birdied the par-4 No. 1 and Matthews took a triple bogey, a four-shot swing that nearly leveled the playing field immediately. But after the shaky start, Matthews steadied himself and recovered to build a two-shot lead at the turn.

“That early swing was huge, but I knew Laken wasn’t going to make that many mistakes,” Asher said. “I knew I was going to have to go out there and take it. He wasn’t going to give it to me.”

As Asher was about to begin the most important nine-hole stretch in his high school career, Heather Whitaker, his mother, couldn’t help but remember a moment two weeks prior before the start of the City League tournament.

In a rare moment, Asher acknowledged the internal pressure he faced.

“I want these last three,” Asher said, referring to league, regional and state titles. “I need to do it, Mom. For myself.”

He captured the City League crown that day, then followed it up days later with a career-best 9-under round of 63 at Crestview Country Club to win a regional title.

And then on Tuesday, Asher roared to the top of the leaderboard with birdies on No. 11 and No. 15 to bring himself level with Matthews entering the final two holes of competition.

“As a mom, of course you want it for your kids, but you also know how sports goes,” Heather said. “He never said it to me again, but I knew how bad he wanted it.”

The pressure only mounted on No. 17 when Asher’s tee shot planted itself in the middle of the green a good distance away from the pin, while Matthews would have a short look for birdie with the championship for the taking.

Up first, Asher operated under the assumption that Matthews’ birdie putt was good. He carefully paced off his steps, calculating about a 36-foot putt, fairly straight and slightly uphill, which was good because it would allow him to attack the hole. He had been frustrated with his putter all day but felt confident in his line.

When he finally stepped up to take the shot, Asher claims his mind was only focused on the task at hand, not the potential championship that could define his high school career and family legacy.

“I just wanted to make sure I got it there,” Asher said. “It felt really good off the club face. It was a solid strike. And then about five feet away, you could tell it was going to drop in right over the front edge.”

Just as his father predicted, Asher had truly done something epic and once again on No. 17.

“The putt goes in and then you start having those memories of the Kansas Am flash back in your head,” Camden Whitaker said. “It was just like, ‘Wow, he’s done some pretty cool stuff on this hole.’”

While draining the 36-footer will likely be the first memory that comes to the surface of the dramatic, come-from-behind victory, Asher’s storybook ending was far from secured with the putt.

But Matthews’ birdie putt on No. 17 slid by the hole, then he pressed on No. 18 to find a birdie to force a playoff. Instead, he bogeyed and Whitaker settled for par to clinch a two-shot victory with a 36-hole total of 141 strokes.

The entire Whitaker family was in attendance on Tuesday, including Emma, who just wrapped up a standout golf career at Oklahoma State, and Clara, a current member of the Wichita State women’s tennis team. There wasn’t a dry eye among them when Asher won.

“He didn’t need to win to prove that he’s an amazing golfer,” Heather Whitaker said. “He’s going to a great place to golf in college and he’s already won some major tournaments. He is amazing, but I know if he left high school and he didn’t win individually, it’s something that could have eaten at him. And no one wanted that for him. He’s worked so hard for this. I don’t know what I would have said if he didn’t get it.”

Asher’s heroics and a strong close from fellow senior Noah Pirtle, who carded a 3-under back-nine score on Tuesday, helped Kapaun (592) edge St. James Academy (594) for its third 5A team championship in the last four years. Pirtle (147) finished alone in fifth place, while junior Carson Bachrodt (157, 18th), sophomore Owen Young (157, 18th) and junior Jason Brokaw (158, 22nd) notched top-25 finishes and senior Billy Weaver (179) rounded out the team.

The individual championship cemented Asher’s lofty place in Kapaun history, a program with 34 titles, the most in state history.

“The only other person I’ve coached who is in the same conversation as Asher is Sam Stevens, who is now on the PGA Tour,” Novascone said. “And Asher is following in those footsteps. This was tremendously satisfying to see because it was something he needed to accomplish to get that monkey off his back.”

Adding to the emotion for the Whitaker family was the realization that all three children were now finished with their high school careers. In total, Emma, Clara and Asher won a combined six individual state titles and helped Kapaun win eight more team championships.

“It’s incredible because it’s not something that you can ever say your kids are going to do,” Heather Whitaker said. “People ask us, ‘What did you do?’ It wasn’t anything that their dad or I did. All three had such a strong internal drive and had a motivation to be the best that they could be and they all worked with amazing coaches along the way. That’s how they got it done.”

Asher didn’t need individual medalist honors on Tuesday to prove something to anyone else. He’s already one of the most accomplished junior golfers in Kansas history.

But winning on Tuesday proved something to himself, which was a more satisfying feeling than any trophy or medal could provide.

“It meant the world to me because it allowed me to walk away from high school knowing that I accomplished everything I wanted to,” Asher said. “I made some pretty huge goals for myself and to be able to accomplish all of them really was just an amazing feeling. And to do it in front of my family, that just meant the world to me.”