Austin Jackson never dreamed he would be playing on the biggest stage of Tennessee prep golf.
Having grown up as a huge fan of the Atlanta Braves, the South Pittsburg senior focused on baseball when it came to sports and how he spent his time, and it has paid off. He helped his high school reach the Class A state tournament's final four this past spring on the diamond, particularly with his work on the mound for the Pirates.
Jackson will make his second trip to a TSSAA state tournament this year when he tees off in the Class A boys' championship event, a two-day competition that starts Thursday at Sevierville Golf Club. He is the first golfer in school history to make it to state.
"I really don't think it has set in yet," Jackson said. "Being the first golfer from our school to make it this far, I really want to represent us well.
"My grandfather helped me pick up this sport four years ago. I started playing just to have fun, and that's what I am going to go out there and focus on this week. I'm not going to worry about what anyone else is doing. Just take things one stroke and hole at a time."
In a sport in which many of the top golfers have been on the links since a young age, Jackson has been an outlier.
Befitting a novice player, his scores were high at first, hovering close to or above the 90s. However, Jackson showed promise with his ball striking, which might have been seen as natural ability for a newcomer to golf — except that the solid hand-eye coordination he developed through baseball undoubtedly plays a part.
As a junior he flashed promise, shooting a 77 during the City Prep tournament at the Bear Trace at Harrison Bay. On the same course last week, he punched his ticket to state by shooting an 82 in the region tournament.
Jackson's home course is Sweetens Cove Golf Club — which was ranked as the state's third-best course in 2020 — and he said he has learned a lot from the tough nine-hole layout where his best score is a 35.
"The way Austin goes about his business in and out of the SPHS school building is a great representation of our community and sports programs," South Pittsburg golf coach Hunter Giles said. "He brings a calm confidence, yet never takes himself or the game too seriously. He has fun and enjoys playing the game."
Jackson, who said he would consider playing college golf if the opportunity arises, called the chance to compete in another state tournament "an amazing feeling," and he made a big putt to help secure his spot in the 36-hole event in Sevierville. At region, he saved par on Bear Trace's seventh hole by making a downhill 15-foot putt after going over the green with his iron.
Now, although playing as an individual, he'll try to produce some more memorable moments like the ones he experienced with the Pirates at the Spring Fling.
"I was so happy for our baseball team and all of my teammates," said Jackson, who had success throwing a two-seam slider and splitter for South Pittsburg's baseball team, which finished 22-15 in the spring. "We had a great team with really strong pitching and timely hitting.
"It's a different feeling to make it to state in golf because you are on an island by yourself. The key is staying within yourself on the course."
While golf sometimes gets the best of newcomers, particularly mentally, Jackson has remained grounded in his coach's view.
"There are many humbling moments that occur on a golf course that can truly make or break a young man," Giles said. "I have had the pleasure of watching Austin conquer that every time with his mental toughness. I could not be more proud of him for being the first golfer here to make it to state. I hope young golfers in our area see his successes and are encouraged to play this game with the respect and passion Austin has shown the past four years."