Alex Papayoanou Wins the 2022 Greater Houston City Amateur Championship

By Richard Dean

Alex Papayoanou, 2022 Greater Houston City Amateur Champion.

Due to Alex Papayoanou’s stellar play over the final day, there wasn’t much suspense going down the stretch of the 2022 Greater Houston City Amateur Golf Championship.

Oh, there was movement on the leaderboard. But that was for the first two days. Sunday’s final 36 holes was dominated by Papayoanou, who at age 17 became the youngest winner of the event following his overwhelming six-shot victory over runner-up Garrett Driver, who in the third round shot a Gus Wortham tournament course-record 8-under 62.

Committed to UCLA, Papayoanou finished 18 under par. A senior at The Woodlands, he turned in one of the more memorable finishes in this event. A tournament that is annually conducted by the Houston Golf Association.

“I definitely knew I could do it coming into the week, but to be able to do it like I wanted, and to do it by so much, feels great,” Papayoanou said. “A lot of people like to chase, but I’d rather stay ahead. I didn’t look at the leaderboard once until I was on 18.”

Two-time winner John Hunter (The Woodlands) closed strong to place third at 7 under. Last year’s champion Todd Albert (Katy) tied for 15th at 3-over 283.

Make no mistake about it. This tournament belonged to Papayoanou, who shot under par in each round, 68-67-63-64. Over Sunday’s final 36 holes, he totaled 14 birdies with just one bogey.

“I struggled all summer and then I knew my game was really close,” Papayoanou said. “I just needed to putt a little better and clean up a little more. This tournament proves I’m making a ton of progress.”

The immensely talented Papayoanou, whose swing coach is Kevin Kirk, made his winning move on Sunday’s final day, where over 36 holes, he totaled 14 birdies. His 7-under 63 third round included three two-putt birdies, closing with three straight birdies. He hit 17 of 18 greens in the early-morning round.

“I made it easy on myself and made a few putts,” Papayoanou said. “That felt good and having the clubhouse lead going into the last round gave me extra comfort.”

Alex Papayoanou teeing off on 18.

Papayoanou went into the final round with a two-shot advantage. He just built on that cushion over the final 18 holes.

“I didn’t look at the leaderboard once until I was on 18,” Papayoanou said. “I was like, ‘I don’t think anybody’s caught me.’ I didn’t look at it, I just stayed in the zone.”

The victory is Papayoanou’s biggest to date. He previously won two AJGA events – one in Louisiana as a sophomore, and in the summer of 2021 at The Woodlands on his home course, the Insperity Invitational/Patrick Reed Junior Championship. He had a fifth-place showing in one of the premier AJGA invitationals – the 2021 Junior Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

For the Houston city amateur, Papayoanou registered 20 birdies and one eagle with his flawless ball striking.

“That’s clicking on all cylinders,” said Hunter, who won this tournament in 2014 at Memorial Park Golf Course and here at Gus Wortham Golf Course in 2019. “The course was set up that if you’re hitting the ball and controlling it, and you’re seeing the (putting) lines, you’re going to put some scores up. It was impressive. He kept putting the pedal down and that’s how you win.”

Only Driver had more holes under par with 21 birdies and one eagle. Hunter and Brandon Nichols (Humble), who shared 13th at 1-over 281, collected the third-most birdies over three days and four rounds with 19.

By beating the best amateurs in the Houston area, and upstaging a field of 144, Papayoanou sent notice that he’s a player others will have to contend with.

“It means a lot because I’ve lived in Houston my whole life and this is my third time playing the tournament,” Papayoanou said. “I guess third time is the charm. I really wanted to win this and I love this golf course. This is one of my favorite courses and it’s amazing it’s a public course. And it’s in good shape.”

Selecting UCLA to play collegiately has been something Papayoanou has had designs on for some time. In addition to liking the Los Angeles weather, Papayoanou said a family relationship factored heavily in his decision.

“It’s always been my dream school because my dad went to graduate school there,” Papayoanou said. “Whenever I had the chance to go there, I couldn’t say no to it.”

Before Papayoanou ran away from the field, several golfers went back-and-forth for the lead.

Garrett Driver approaching the green on nine.

At one point in the third round on Sunday, Driver was tied for the lead at 10 under. Considering the 33-year-old Crosby resident had never played Gus Wortham until the Monday of the tournament, and it was only his second week back playing golf after dislocating a pinky, which he couldn’t grip a golf club for six weeks, two weeks before the start of city amateur, second place was a great finish for Driver.

“I didn’t have any expectations, so it was nice,” said Driver, who played at McLennan Community College in Waco and later at Sam Houston following his graduation from Humble High School. “I had zero expectations.”

Driver turned in a clean sheet during his 62 that included coming in at 5-under 30.

“Just everything was clicking,” Driver said. “I had one of those feelings. Everything felt good. On the driving range warming up, putting green, everything.”

Driver recently regained his amateur status. He played professionally on the Adams and Mackenzie tours. Currently the head boys golf coach at Atascocita High School, Driver has an impressive resume. He has finished second twice in the Texas Amateur. In 2011, he was runner-up to Kelly Kraft. In that tournament’s third round, Driver shot an Austin Country Club tournament course-record 67.

Although he had no realistic chance of winning the tournament a third time after being 1 over following Friday’s opening round and Saturday’s second 18 holes, Hunter remained competitive. By fighting hard, as well as riding a hot putter, the fast-charging 38-year-old earned a top three-finish. Over Sunday’s final 36 holes he carded 68-64, which added to 8 under.

“I made some putts and kept sneaking up on them,” Hunter said. “Kept moving up and had some people come back. There was no pressure. Keep plugging and see where you finish.

“When I started the day, I was like let’s (shoot for) top 10, then starting (Sunday’s second 18 holes) let’s try to get top five. I played well and things fell into place for a third-place finish. I found my way in there. The course was phenomenal and greens great. It was one of those if you got the ball on the green you could make putts.”

Second-round leader Nickolas Martinez (Cypress), who played at Houston Baptist University, finished fourth at 6-under 274, one shot ahead of Jeffrey Swearingen (The Woodlands). Four players shared sixth at 3 under – Joey Rippel (Sugar Land), who had the low score of 63 over the final round, Marek Fleming (Tomball), Kristoffer Kuvaas (Houston) and Randy Lance (Spring).

First-round leader Juan Salcedo (The Woodlands), who opened with a 4-under-66 on Friday, was 30th at 11-over 291.