BLOOMINGTON — TJ Barger knows he will be a marked man this high school golf season. That's what happens when you win a state title.
Just don't expect the Bloomington High School junior to crumple under the extra attention.
"I think it will make me better," he said matter-of-factly after a practice round Tuesday at Prairie Vista Golf Course. "I don't feel much pressure. Maybe off the first tee, but after that shot it's perfectly fine."
After snow wiped out the first day of last year's Class 2A State Tournament at Weibring Golf Club, Barger made a back-nine charge on day two. Trailing by three at the turn, he fired 32 coming in for a 3-under-par 68 to earn medalist honors by three strokes.
The lasting memory for Barger was "all the people watching me. I had a lot of family out there."
Winning back-to-back state titles is rare. The last golfer to do so was Quincy's Luke Guthrie in 2006-07 before he went off to the University of Illinois and later the PGA Tour.
Barger wouldn't mind following the same script he used a year ago. He fired a 66 in the season-opening Champaign Central Invitational at the U of I Blue Course in Savoy. BHS begins Friday in the same tourney, but this time at the tougher U of I Orange Course.
After struggling for a while earlier this summer, getting a new driver helped Barger's confidence along with "borrowing" a putter from his father, Steve. Barger fired 67 in the opening round of the Bloomington-Normal Medal Play earlier this month at Weibring Golf Club before finishing eighth.
"Right now it's my putting," said Barger of his biggest concern. "My driver has been progressing this summer ... I'm hitting a lot more fairways and staying out of trouble."
Barger also is a basketball player at BHS. However, knowing his future lies in golf he only played one tournament with the Raiders' basketball team this summer.
"Basketball is my second sport. but honestly I like high school basketball. It's a lot more fun and more exciting than the high school golf team," he said. "But I still enjoy golf. It's fun."
A former standout at Illinois State hopes to help Barger achieve his goal of landing a golf scholarship from a major Division I program.
Kiley Walsh, who was an all-Missouri Valley Conference selection for the ISU women's team, has taken over as BHS' coach. Although she hasn't seen Barger play much, Walsh is impressed that "nothing is too scary or hard" for him.
"What I've gotten to see is he's extremely comfortable on the golf course grounds. It doesn't matter where we are, he steps on (the course) and he's home," said Walsh, who teaches Spanish at BHS.
"There's no part of his game that definitely needs any type of work. For him what we're going to work on is course management, which is always something people learn the more that they play, even the pros continue to learn. We'll try to work on hitting more fairways which turns into more greens which turns into more birdie putts."
Barger's top round last season was a 7-under-par 65 at Pekin's Lick Creek Golf Course which won the Pekin Invitational by a whopping eight strokes. Yet even during that stellar day, Barger found something he can improve.
"I was making just every putt really, even though I had one bogey," he said. "I would love to have a clean scorecard (with no bogeys). I've never had that before."