EDWARDSVILLE – To Antonio Ybarra, it’s no coincidence that as he dropped pounds, he also dropped multiple strokes off his golf scores.
Before his sophomore season at Metro-East Lutheran last fall, Ybarra lost nearly 100 pounds in less than a year.
“It was something I had wanted to do since 2012 or 2013,” Ybarra said. “I was gaining a lot of weight and wasn’t happy, and if I wanted to play a sport and do it well, I probably should be in decent shape. I wanted to feel more physically strong and I wanted to feel better.”
In addition to the health benefits, Ybarra saw an immediate improvement in his golf game.
Ybarra capped the season by shooting a 14-over-par 86 to tie for 59th place in the first day of the Class 1A state tournament on Oct. 18 at Prairie Vista Golf Course in Bloomington.
Ybarra, who didn’t make it out of the regional as a freshman in 2018, is the first MELHS golfer to reach the state tournament since the Knights qualified as a team and placed 10th in 2007.
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“It showed me that all the work and all the dedication that I had been putting into it was paying off,” said Ybarra, who is the Intelligencer’s small-school MVP for boys golf.
After weighing 265 pounds before starting his diet, Ybarra is now at 175 pounds. He is hoping to get up to 180 or 185 by putting on more muscle.
“It’s a slow process because you usually can put on only a few pounds of muscle each year,” said Ybarra, who is still counting calories and cutting his meal portions. “Popcorn is one of my best friends right now. It’s low calories unless you put a bunch of butter and all that stuff on it.”
The new-look Ybarra claimed his first tournament victory on Aug. 22 by shooting a 5-over-par 77 to win the small-school division of the Madison County Tournament. He also got second place in the Prairie State Conference Tournament with an 80 on Oct. 4 at Timber Lakes Golf Course in Staunton.
Ybarra’s postseason journey started with an 89 at the Alton Marquette Sectional on Oct. 7 at Spencer T. Olin Golf Course.
While it wasn’t one of his better rounds of the season, it was good enough to send him to the Zeigler-Royalton Sectional, where he shot 77 on Oct. 14 at Franklin County Country Club to qualify for the state tournament.
John Zilm, who is Metro’s co-coach with Tim Lorenz, wasn’t surprised by Ybarra’s rapid improvement last fall.
Zilm expects similar improvement from Ybarra during his junior season.
“He has a pretty high ceiling of talent and he’s shown that through practice and some matches here and there where he really sets the course on fire,” Zilm said of Ybarra, who had team-best averages of 39 for nine holes and 78 for 18 holes. “He’s gradually developed into more of a consistent player and we saw that toward the end of the season.”
Ybarra’s only regret from his sophomore season was that he didn’t make it to day two of the state tournament. Only the top eight teams and the top 24 individuals not on qualifying teams advanced to play on Saturday. The cutoff score for advancing was 82.
Any chance for Ybarra to advance to the second day evaporated on the back nine, where he struggled with his putting.
“I’ve been doing a lot of work on my putting since then and it’s a part of my game that has been turning around,” Ybarra said. “I have a new driver and I’m working on that right now, but one of the biggest areas where I have progressed since state last year is my mental game and my game off the tee.
“I went from averaging 260 or 280 yards for a drive up to 330 yards on par fours. I’m also keeping the ball in the fairway, which is a bit different from what I had been doing.”
Ybarra, who had been going to the gym four to five days a week before the pandemic, bought some weights so he could work out at home. Now that Planet Fitness has reopened, he has resumed his training schedule.
A recent incident at Oak Brook Golf Club proves that Ybarra’s strength training is paying off.
“My driver shaft somehow kind of splintered right down the middle when I made a drive, so I took it into Golf Galaxy,” Ybarra said. “One of the golf pros there said that if I didn’t smash it into the ground, he didn’t know how that occurred. He thought maybe the driver wasn’t the right fit for me.
“I told him my swing speed was 110 to 115 (miles per hour) and his eyes perked up like he didn’t believe me, but on the simulator, I was hitting 112 or 113. He told me instead of a 60-gram shaft, I’m going to need 75 or 80 grams. I thought, “going to the gym I definitely working.’ ”
Since the golf courses reopened, Ybarra is putting plenty of time into his game.
Ybarra is scheduled to play in a two-day Gateway Junior PGA tournament Tuesday and Wednesday at Spencer T. Olin Golf Course in Alton. He has already played in events at Forest Park and the Quarry at Crystal Springs Golf in Maryland Heights.
That kind of dedication to golf, along with a healthier lifestyle and a commitment to conditioning, makes Zilm confident that Ybarra will elevate his game again this fall.
“I think Antonio will have some bigger goals for himself,” Zilm said. “He not only wants to make it to the second day at state; a top-10 finish is definitely in the realm of possibility.”