Maine Junior Golf Championships set to begin Tuesday at Dutch Elm Golf Club

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Jul. 25—Last year, the Maine Junior Golf Championships became a stage for Eli Spaulding.

One of the state's brightest young talents, Spaulding shot a 6-under 66 in the first round en route to finishing at 3-under for the tournament and winning the junior amateur title.

This week, Spaulding is looking to take center stage again. The 16-year-old will be a top player to beat as the junior championships begin Tuesday at Dutch Elm Golf Club in Arundel.

The tournament, a two-day event, is for players under the age of 19 and is broken up into flights; 16-18 years old, 14-15, 12-13 and 11-and-under for boys, and 16-18, 14-15 and 13-and-under for girls.

"I'm really excited to hopefully continue to kind of show my game. It's honestly gotten better since last year," Spaulding said. "I've played in a lot of tournaments this summer, and I feel like I've improved a lot."

Spaulding is already locked into a spot on the Maine team for the New England Junior Amateur championships Aug. 8-10, as is Ruby Haylock on the girls' side. There are six more openings for boys and two for girls, and if anyone but those two puts up the top overall score this week, they would clinch a spot on the team, Maine Golf Director Brian Bickford said.

"This tournament is a big determinant when we start to fill out that team," Bickford said.

Spaulding, a 16-year-old rising junior at Freeport, will compete in the boys' 16-18 flight after winning the 14-15 group last year. He said his performance last season showed him just how well he can play, and just how low he can score.

Spaulding shot 4-under 68 to win last year's Class B high school championship, and just last week he finished 1-under to place 21st in the New England Amateur.

"Going into that tournament, I hadn't really posted too many low, low scores in some of these bigger tournaments," said Spaulding, who also finished tied for 12th at the Maine Amateur earlier in the month. "At the same time, I knew my game was there last year at that point. I just hadn't had the day to do that."

He'll have company. Parker Hilchey, a recent Camden Hills graduate, is back in the tournament after winning the 16-18 flight last season at 3-over par. Hilchey, 18, was debating between playing in the junior championship or the State of Maine Championship going on at Sugarloaf Golf Club before making his decision at the end of last week.

"It's one of my favorite tournaments of the year," Hilchey said. "A lot of my older friends at the Samoset (Resort) were playing (at Sugarloaf), so I was debating on which one. But I ended up deciding that I really wanted to defend my title."

Hilchey will play in the fall at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

"It's (about) how I play," he said. "It's really me versus the golf course, that's how I'll look at it at the end of the day. Obviously the goal is to win, but (I understand) that I've just got to play my best golf. And if that's enough, then great."

Also returning is Connor Albert, who was second by three strokes to Hilchey in the 16-18 group despite a strong back nine on the second and final day.

"Last year was kind of a big step. I was down five with nine to play, and I battled back to two down with two to play," said Val Halla's Albert, 16, a rising senior at Greely. "It kind of gave me some self confidence and made me realize that this is the spot I'm supposed to be in. And when I'm in that spot, I perform."

Haylock, 17, returns after winning the girls' title at 6-over. The Turner Highlands player is coming off of a runaway victory in the Maine Women's Amateur last week, but could be challenged by Portland Country Club's Ruth Weeks, a rising senior at Greely.

"In the Amateur, it's pretty serious. It's high stakes and everybody is really pushing to win," said Haylock, who will be one of four players in the girls' 16-18 flight. "It's a three-day event, so it's a little bit more mentally challenging. With the junior event, it's a little bit more laid back, but it's still fun."

Haylock said she wants to be role model for other juniors.

"I like this event quite a bit," she said. "I know when I was getting into junior golf, I had all the older girls to look up to, and it definitely encouraged me to keep working at my game. ... I feel like I'm trying to do a similar thing for the other girls that are playing in these events."