By Steve Gunn

WHITEHALL – Greg Boughton has been coaching golf at Whitehall High School for 50 years, so he knows a good young player when he sees one.

He ranks Steve Cullen among the very best in his long coaching career, along with names like Derek Jacobson, Erik Sanford and Chris Ritchie.

Whitehall’s Steve Cullen stands with Coach Greg Boughton. Photo/Jason Goorman

Unfortunately Cullen has not had as much opportunity to compete as those great players from previous years. He did very well as a freshman and sophomore, and had the top average in the conference each season, but was still developing his game. He was primed for a big season in 2020, but it never happened due to COVID.

So Cullen had one more chance as a senior this season, and he’s making the most of it. He is again the top golfer in the West Michigan Conference, and his play is a big reason why his Whitehall squad has won every conference tournament so far.

Now he’s focusing on regionals in two weeks, where he hopes to shoot much better than he did in his first two years and qualify for the state finals for the first time.

That won’t be a piece of cake for Cullen. In 2019 Whitehall golf moved up to Division 2, after years of competing in Division 3. That means there will be a lot of really good players from bigger schools in the regional field, but Boughton believes Cullen can qualify for the state finals, and maybe do pretty well there, too.

“As a sophomore I think he put a little pressure on himself to qualify,” Boughton said about the 2019 regional tournament. “We were playing a lot of really good teams. It was a tough regional.

Cullen lines up a putt during Monday’s Mona Shores Invitational at Muskegon Country Club. Photo/Jason Goorman

“Anything is possible this year. Earlier in the season he was all around the cup, but now he’s starting to make birdies. I think he’s in a good frame of mind to make good swings and not pressure himself. He doesn’t make stupid mistakes. He hits it big off the tee, plays smart, and has always had a good short game.”

Cullen is far more modest when talking about his game, but admits he very much wants to do well at regionals and make the state finals in his final opportunity.

“I kind of wanted to do better in conference – I wanted to be closer to par – but I’m still doing pretty well,” he said. “I had a few bad rounds, but I’ve dialed it in now. I just started practicing my short game, and my putting got better. I want to make sure I get to state and do good there.”

Cullen’s regular season has been impressive. He has been the medalist in two conference tournaments, hosted by Shelby and Montague. He was second at the Reeths-Puffer Invitational at Lincoln Golf Course (which is hosting the Division 2 regional), and fourth at the GMAA City Tournament and the Ludington Invitational.

He has a 38.8 nine-hole average, which is tops in West Michigan Conference play. Montague’s Drew Collins is a distant second with an average of 45.5, while Whitehall teammate Evan Mikkelson is third in the league with a 48.3.

Cullen’s best performance of the season so far has been at the Montague Invitational at Old Channel Trail, where he finished with a one under par 70, and won the tournament by seven shots over Lowell’s William de Voest.

Boughton remembers Cullen’s confidence peaking at that tournament.

“He got to the eighth hole and said he wanted to go birdie-eagle on the last two holes, and he did it,” Boughton said. “It was fun watching him golf.”

Of course playing at Old Channel is like a home tournament for Cullen. His father Chris Cullen was the longtime PGA pro at the course, and Steve says he’s been golfing there since he’s been able to walk.

He credits his dad for the progress he has made over the years. While Chris Cullen was usually busy with his duties around the course, he always made time to give his son some pointers.

“He would be going to work and take me with him, and I would just go out and practice,” said Cullen, who plans to follow in his father’s footsteps and study to become a golf pro in college. “He would help me with my swing and give me other stuff to work on.”

Cullen watches as a putt sinks on hole No. 7 at Muskegon Country Club. Photo/Jason Goorman

Cullen and fellow senior Mikkelson have turned in consistently strong scores all season, helping Whitehall win the team competition at every conference invitational so far, with two still to come.

Rounding out the top five conference averages for the team are Mikkelson (who also competes in track in the spring) with a 48.3, Nick Fuller with a 49.7, Owen Hayes with a 50; and Landon Griffin with a 52.

Cullen’s contribution to the team goes beyond his play. He’s the team captain, and also serves as sort of an extra coach, helping Boughton out at practices.

“I will split the team up in half, and I will have him run short game drills,” Boughton said. “The other kids respect him as the player that he is and the person that he is. He also does all the reminders for me – he will ask me ‘Don’t you think you’d better get a word out on this or that?’”

Cullen plays a ton of golf every year, and the high school season is only part of it, but he says it’s a special part because he likes playing as part of a team.

“I like riding in the van with the team on the way there and the way back, and going out to eat is fun,” he said. “I like that it’s not all about you.”

Cullen says he likes to help his less experienced teammates improve so that the Vikings can do well. He spent some time working with his friend and teammate Owen Hayes last summer, and is particularly impressed with the way he is shooting this year, considering his lack of experience in the sport.

“He never played golf until COVID,” Cullen said. “I helped him a lot over the summer and he’s gotten a lot better. He’s having a pretty good season.”