Jones Free said he was shaking.
The 16-year-old from Selma stood over a four-foot par putt on the 18th green to win the 70th Press Thornton Future Masters after a memorable come-from-behind showdown with Maxwell Ford.
“I played it left edge, which was a pretty big breaker for a four-footer,” Free said. “I really wasn’t sure it was in when I hit it.”
It found the bottom of the cup and completed a one-shot victory over Ford with a score of 10-under-par 200. He shot a final-round 1-under 69 on the Dothan Country Club course.
“It was pretty nerve-racking, but you’ve got to love the moment. It was a great experience,” said Free, who never led until that final putt fell.
Ford of Peachtree Corners, Ga., shot a 9-under 201 for the week. He enjoyed the lead the entire week after starting the 54-hole event with a record 61 on Thursday. He shot a 1-under 69 on Friday and finished with a 1-over 71 on Saturday.
Free fired a second-round 62 on Friday as the two leaders separated themselves from the field. One of their playing partners, Harrison Davis (who shot a final-round 70) of Fort Payne, Austin Coggin (65) of Birmingham and Ford’s twin brother, David Ford (65), tied for third at 4-under 206.
Rafe Reynolds of Greenville, S.C., Hunter Thomson of Calgary, Alberta, and Andrew Spaulding of Spring, Texas, finished at 1-under 209.
“I had a really good view of the great battle between Jones and Maxwell,” said Davis, a Mississippi State commitment who holed a bunker shot for birdie on No. 18 to finish the round. “Honestly, none of us hit it like we did the last couple days. But coming down the stretch was really fun, being in that atmosphere.”
Maxwell Ford took a one-shot lead into the final round and never trailed. He had a three-shot advantage after No. 7 when Free made his third bogey of the day and his second in a row.
“I was pretty disappointed at the time, but I knew there was a lot of golf left,” said Free, an Alabama commitment who will be a junior at Morgan Academy this fall.
From that point, Free played bogey-free with four birdies and seven pars.
“It was a pretty big comeback. I was proud of myself,” Free said.
Free birdied 8, 9 and 10 to get to 9-under. Ford birdied No. 9 to maintain a one-shot lead at the turn at 10-under. He bogeyed No. 14 to fall back into a tie with Free and they stayed locked up at 9-under through No. 16.
Free stuffed his approach at No. 17 within about four feet and appeared to take command when Ford’s punched approach from the left rough finished on the mound past the hole and to the left of the green, about 15 feet from the hole, but in a precarious spot.
“I just wanted to get it close and give myself a chance for par,” Ford said. “I hit it well. When it was a foot away, I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s got a chance.’”
He made it for birdie to move back to 10-under and put the heat back on Free.
“That was very impressive by him. All props. That was a great shot,” Free said.
He drained his putt for birdie and they moved to 18 still tied.
They both found the fairway off the tee. Ford outdrove Free after hitting what he called one of his best drives of the tournament. Free was farther back after hitting his drive a bit off the toe, he said.
“I had 152 into the wind,” Free said. “I really didn’t like the number. I took my 8-iron, which I usually hit around 170 yards, and knocked it down. Of course, it still went long.”
His ball settled just off the putting surface on the back fringe, about 25 feet from the hole.
Ford said his approach was one of only two bad swings on the back nine, the other coming at 14.
He pulled his approach to the left fringe, hole high but a good 40 feet from the cup, which was on the right side of the green.
“That’s a tough two-putt,” Ford said. “I hit the first putt softer than I wanted to and left myself about 5½ or six feet (short). On the second one, I didn’t hit a bad putt, it just jumped right on me a little bit.”
He tapped in for a three-putt bogey.
That didn’t make Free’s job much easier. He knew he had work to do from above the hole.
“I had that putt yesterday, too, so I knew it was very quick,” Free said. “I’ve seen a lot of players hit that putt six feet by. I still hit it four feet past.”
In the millisecond from his clutch par putt going in the hole and the large crowd reacting to Free’s winning putt, his father, William Free, gave a big fist-pump and a “Yeah!”
William Free got up at 5 a.m. and drove from Selma to watch the final round with his wife, Callen. He did a double-take on Friday when he saw Jones had shot a 62.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ Williams said. “Shocked.”
But maybe not surprised.
“He’s been playing really good this summer,” the proud father said. “It started in April. They won the state championship at Morgan Academy and it’s kind of progressed since then. He’s put in a lot of work and it’s paid off.”
William Free credited Ford’s fine play, too.
“Both those kids played really well,” he said. “They both deserved it. It was very nerve-racking, to say the least. I aged at least 10 years. I think I’m 60 now.”
Ford handled himself with poise despite the disappointment.
“That’s just how it ends up,” he shrugged. “Somebody’s got to win. Mentally today, I was really good. I didn’t hit it great. I putted really well from three to six feet. I didn’t make as many as I could have, but I’m definitely happy with where my game’s at.”
The champion knew he had a tough task following that second-round 62.
“That was the best I probably could have done,” Free said of his 69 and 10-under winning score. “Of course, I left a couple putts out there. It didn’t go as well as yesterday, but it’s still a great number and I’m proud of myself.”