EFFINGHAM — One birdie fell, then another and another.
Suddenly, Effingham St. Anthony senior-to-be Luke Ludwig connected on three of them on the back nine to shoot a 68 on June 25 at the USGA U.S. Junior Amateur Qualifying round at the St. Clair Country Club in Belleville to place him in the top two overall to advance to Monday's USGA U.S. Junior Amateur at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J.
Ludwig is one of two players in Illinois to advance to Baltusrol, joining Tyler Isenhart of Geneva.
“At first I didn’t know what I did,” Ludwig said, laughing. “I knew I was going to go to Baltusrol, but it didn’t really set in until a few days later when I was like, ‘Wow. I’m really going to Baltusrol to play with the best in the country.’ It was surreal.”
Ludwig will tee off at 8:09 a.m. Monday in the first round. The top 64 scores through two rounds advance to the match play round, and the semifinal and final match will be aired on Fox Sports 1 July 20 and 21.
If walking off hole No. 18 at St. Clair with a birdie on the final hole wasn't enough, he was joined by his temporary caddie — his grandpa Jerry Ludwig.
Jerry doesn't miss a chance to watch Luke on the links, and when the opportunity to caddie for Luke came up, Jerry pounced.
"Being my grandson and all, I really thought it would be a thrill to do that for him," Jerry said. "After he qualified, it was a special thing to do to be caddie for him."
When he tells stories about Luke's conquering of the qualifying round, and they're often told, they all end in the same way.
“He was a big part in that day, now that I think about it," Luke said. "He’s taken a lot of pride in that day. He talks about it a lot. He’ll say something (about the day) to other people and at the end he’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I was the caddie.’ He makes sure people knew he was the caddie that day.
“He rightfully should do that. He played a big role that day in helping me shoot the number I did."
Jerry confirmed the yardages for his grandson, and when Luke marched through the back nine with his score dropping and a chance to advance to a tournament that Luke called a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Jerry was the one who stepped in to keep Luke calm.
"That’s one of the things that I do when I’m playing golf, I get really quick," Luke said. "He slowed me down on certain shots, especially coming down the stretch with a good score."
Jerry won't take credit for Luke's qualifying round except for maybe slowing him down a tick or two.
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"Being 72 I am a little slow," Jerry said. "I think I helped him slow down a little bit. I made sure he stayed focused. I said commit to the shot and trust your swing."
Jerry won't serve a repeat performance at the U.S. Junior Open. Luke has secured a caddie through the USGA who has significant experience with Baltusrol. But Jerry and upwards of 14 more family members will be in New Jersey with eyes on Luke.
Alumni from the U.S. Junior Open, such as Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth, have turned into household names.
“It’s crazy to think that Spieth has won this twice (2009, 2011) and Tiger has won this three times (1991-93) in a row and I’m about to try my chances of trying to win it," Ludwig said. "That’s a long goal, but it’s definitely attainable. If I make it to the match play portion, anything can happen."
Entering the qualifying, Ludwig didn't even expect to advance to Monday's tournament, but it gave him a confidence boost.
In qualifying, he shot better than not only some of the top golfers from Illinois and Missouri, but across the country and even China.
“Now that I qualified for this, I feel like I can play with some of the best players in this area — not in the country yet," Ludwig said. "I can play with some of the best players in all the border states around Illinois, for sure. It’s crazy how all this has come up in a short amount of time. This is the biggest tournament I’ve qualified for."
As his golf career has progressed — he took 25th in the IHSA Class 1A state golf tournament last season — and he attends bigger and bigger tournaments, he has eyes on playing in college.
The realization that he could land on a college squad came last spring, and he's built from there.
He's already been advised that Baltusrol will have between 60 and 80 NCAA Division I coaches in attendance, and Ludwig has narrowed his search to a handful of Division I and Division II programs.
There's pressure, but there's also exposure to take advantage of and connections to forge.
“There’s some pressure and there’s no pressure," he said. "The pressure is you have to play at least decent in front of the college coaches. There’s no pressure because you’re getting exposure and they can see your swing. If they think you have a good motion, even though you didn’t play very well, that’s huge."
After surprising himself in the qualifying round, all that's left for Ludwig to do is try to get into match play.
There, he said, anything can happen.