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Freshman golfer hopes high school season ends with top finish at states

By Nolan Weidner |

Johnny Gruninger is about 5-foot-6 and weighs less than 125 pounds.

But the Manlius Pebble Hill freshman can smack a golf ball about 275 yards off the tee on a good day. And he often turns in rounds under par.

Though he’s only 15, Gruninger is one of the area’s top high school golfers in this abbreviated spring season.

Gruninger has helped his MPH golf team to a perfect record (9-0) so far, and with league, sectional and state qualifying tournaments coming up, Gruninger is practicing hard in hopes of bettering his 25th-place finish at last year’s state tournament in Ithaca.

In fact, Gruninger says his goal is to win the upcoming tournament June 2-3 at Cornell’s Robert Trent Jones Course.

Winning has come often for Gruninger this year.

On May 5 in Corning, he shot 1-under-par 69 to win the Heib Memorial Tournament by three strokes and besting 95 of the state’s top golfers.

Four months ago, he played in three tournaments in Florida and won twice. In MPH’s nine matches so far, his 9-hole average is 34.

“You could call him one of the best junior golfers in the state,” said MPH golf coach Will O’Malley.

Gruninger, who started playing at Westvale Golf Club at 4 or 5 years old when his grandfather stuck a club in his hands, already won top honors last summer in the Syracuse District Golf Association’s Junior Classic, a tournament in which he breezed to a 14-stroke victory. He was named the SDGA’s Junior Player of the Year (ages 18 and under) last fall.

Other team sports just didn’t hold up for Gruninger, who said he likes golf because “you don’t have to rely on other people. It’s all you.”

Gruninger still plays soccer at MPH, but he’s given up other former favorites such as hockey and baseball.

Right now, he’s trying to play as much as possible before the big, season-ending tournaments. Gruninger lives on Syracuse’s southwest side, within walking distance of Bellevue Country Club. He works with longtime golf professional Linda Mulherin at Drumlins and also with Bellevue’s Jim Roy.

Gruninger said he loved playing at states last year, except for the wintry conditions (35 degrees) on the first day.

“I played pretty well there. Hopefully I’ll get back there this year,” he said. “I’m trying to peak in the next two weeks because states is a really big deal.”

Like most young golfers, Gruninger hopes to become good enough to earn a scholarship to play in college. He said perennial Division I power Virginia is his dream school.

Though his slight frame could use some muscle, Gruninger said he is working out and watching his diet – just like athletes in any sport. He’s well aware of the distances the sport’s young pro stars are hitting the ball.

Gruninger said his strengths include his ability to hit a lot of greens with iron shots, and he’s good with a putter.

O’Malley said Gruninger could have excelled at any sport. He just happens to love golf.

“If he continues to improve at his current trajectory, who knows,” he said.