Lounging comfortably in the back room at Timbergate’s pro shop with a pair of pink shark cloud foam slides on her feet, Ava Bunker might as well have been sitting on a couch in her own living room — which, perhaps not coincidentally, is roughly a couple of iron shots away.
Even if Bunker didn’t officially reside at Timbergate, she pretty much lives here now anyway.
Though her address has changed — her family moved to Edinburgh from Franklin at the end of last summer — Bunker is still the same precocious golfing phenom that she has been for the past several years, and the 14-year-old is continuing to make a splash not just locally, but on a national level.
Her appearance next week in the annual AJGA Circle K Junior Championship at Otter Creek in Columbus sets off a whirlwind back half of the summer for Bunker. She’ll spend the first week of July playing in the North & South Junior at Pinehurst No. 2 and No. 6 in North Carolina. The following week (July 12-15), she’ll play in the IMG Junior World Golf Championships at Torrey Pines — her first-ever trip to California.
Bunker will cap off her summer vacation by returning to Pinehurst for the US Kids Golf World Teen Championship, a tournament where she placed third in 2021.
There’s plenty of reason to believe that she can improve upon that showing this time around, because she’s not the same player she was a year or two ago.
For starters, she’s grown a lot physical — though she’s still just 5-foot-1, Bunker is more than five inches taller than she was as a 12-year-old, and she’s starting to add some muscle to her frame through regular strength training with Mike Christman at Fitness Garage in Carmel.
That ongoing metamorphosis has helped her add some distance to her shots; Bunker estimates that her drives have gone from about 190 yards to more than 230 in about a year’s time.
“It’s definitely helped me a lot,” Bunker said of her physical growth. “I’ve also been working on generating some power with my legs and ground force. … I drive into the ground, pretty much, so that’s actually generated a lot of power, especially with my driver.”
Of course, she’s still smaller than most of the girls she plays against, especially since Bunker routinely plays up at age and competes within the 15-18 age division. As she always has in the past, she makes up the difference by staying consistent and hitting the ball straight.
Hitting fairways and getting greens in regulation has always been Bunker’s calling card, along with an elite short game.
“If I miss the green, I’ve got to make sure my up-and-downs are on point,” she said.
“Ava’s learned that keeping the ball in play is a major player in her success,” added her swing coach, Jeff Smith. “There’s a lot of people out there who can hit it a little farther than she can right now, but if they’re out of play, they’re out of contention.”
Bunker hasn’t been out of contention often.
She was the GolfWeek Junior Tour’s Player of the Year in 2020, winning three of eight events and placing in the top 10 seven times. She was even better last year — in 11 tour starts, Bunker collected five wins and eight top-three finishes.
This year, Bunker has finished in the top eight in 12 of her first 13 tournaments, winning four of them. Those victories include two more GolfWeek crowns and an Indiana Junior Golf Spring Series event at Kokomo Country Club on May 15 that saw Bunker shoot a 7-under-par 63 — which was not only her career low, but also established a new course record.
She’s had five rounds under par this year in all, four more than she’d previously had in her tournament life.
“I’ve been shooting under a lot more, which is nice,” Bunker said.
Such rounds should be more common in the future. Between her physical maturation and a switch to firmer club shafts that has aided her consistency, the physical tools are all there.
What separates Bunker from her peers, however, is all between the ears, according to Smith.
“The struggle now is always to keep it maintained at a high level,” he said. “What’s going to make that all happen is the discipline that she has. Most people, most players, don’t have the thing that she has, and that’s the willingness to sacrifice a lot of other things to make herself successful. She’s doing that, and that’s one of the big reasons that she will remain a great player.”
Because of her busy tournament travel schedule, Bunker had long been on the fence about whether or not she wanted to play high school golf once she begins her freshman year in August. She has found an arrangement that works for her, however; Bunker will continue her education remotely but do so through Columbus North — a team that, as luck would have it, practices at Timbergate.
Bunker will be able to take classes at home during the day (when she’s at home, at least), then walk down the street and tee off with her Bull Dog teammates.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to,” Bunker said. “It wasn’t a huge concern, but I was like, ‘This would be fun.’ It’ll be nice to get to know some people. Even though I can’t do as many tournaments (during the season), it’ll still be nice to get that experience.”
And, as Smith pointed out, you can’t win a state championship if you never play for one.
Between now and the start of the high school season, Bunker will be getting most of her experience in other parts of the country, testing her skills on some of the most prestigious and challenging courses the sport has to offer. She’s racked up 92 tournament victories since she started competing in 2015, and there figure to be far more to come if she continues to progress as she has.
Bunker has always been plenty good. The question now is this: How good can she get?
“As good as she wants to be,” Smith said. “She is the only limit.”