(A good week for Rob Neaton of Black Hall Club who recorded his best Connecticut Amateur finish in reaching the semifinals of match play)
Thursday was a reminder that the Connecticut Amateur is as much a marathon as it is a golf event— testing not only the physical endurance of older players but the emotional stamina of young.
Which may be why one of each will meet in Friday’s final.
Ben Conroy, who at 28 calls himself a “mid-am,” will meet Elias Gross, a 20-year-old University of Hartford junior from California playing in his first CSGA event.
Their afternoon semifinal matches, ending at 18 in Conroy’s case and 17 in Gross’, left both ready for a nap.
“Yeah, young legs probably helped,” laughed Gross. “I don’t exactly look forward to playing 36 again tomorrow, but I know it will be a lot of fun.”
Gross beat Brian Ahern, the 1999 Amateur Champion, 2 and 1. He said he thought Waterbury’s Donald Ross design played to his strength. “I like the emphasis on putting it in the fairway. That kind of plays to my strength.”
It’s also a strength of the steady Conroy, who defeated Rob Neaton, 1-up.
“Score one for the mid-ams!” said Conroy, whose win hinged on a 16th-hole chip that saved par from the rim of a deep depression right of the green. “I got a lucky break that it didn’t fall into the hole,” said Conroy. “It was still moving a little when I got there. If that falls into the hole, there’s no chance I’m making four. When it stopped, as soon as Rob hit, I went. I hit a great chip and a really solid putt and made par to go one up.” Neaton’s bogey there made the difference.
Fatigue and a stronger breeze cut down on afternoon birdies. When Conroy defeated medalist Evan Grenus in a 21-hole-slugfest in the morning, they combined for 11 birdies. Neaton and he made only 3. “I think the wind made a big difference. But we’re all playing in the same conditions, and we’re all tired, “ said Conroy.
Part of the exhaustion stemmed from the length of the morning matches. Each of the four reached 18 holes, one went to 19, and Conroy’s to 21.
In the opening match, Grenus twice came back from 3-hole deficits against Conroy, birdieing the 16th and 18th to extend the match. Conroy won with par on the long third hole where Grenus three-putted for bogey. The match was easily the most well-played of the morning, Conroy making five birdies, Grenus six. Which is why no lead seemed secure.
“Comfortable? Never,” Conroy said of his three-up leads. “I know Evan’s been playing great all week. I knew he was going to make a run at some point.” Actually, he made two. When Grenus, the 2015 Amateur Champion, birdied the 16th and the 18th, they went to sudden death. “I felt okay going into the playoff,” said Conroy, who made no bogeys in 33 holes yesterday and only two today. “If he was going to win the match I wanted him to beat me, not beat myself. And I didn’t feel I did. I made a great up-and-down on 18 before he made the birdie. So I felt good.”
Was it a win for the “old” guys? “I’m always rooting for the mid-am guys,” Conroy said. “Any time a mid-am player can beat a college kid, that’s kind of fun. Hey, Evan was playing tough. But everyone wants to take out the No. 1 seed.” It took Conroy 5 birdies to do that.
For the longest time the second quarterfinal match looked like the reverse of the first. Twenty-two-year-old John Abbott, who had yesterday defeated both defending champion Richard Dowling and 2017 Mid-Am Champion Mike Kennedy, led the 42-year-old Ahern by two holes on the 16th tee. He hit the green, Ahern missed left. At which point Ahern’s putting magic took over. He got up and down there, then made birdie putts over 15 feet on No. 17, No.18 and No. 1.
“It’s tough,” said Abbot. “But I didn’t beat myself. When he hit it left on 16, I felt like I needed to play strong coming in and I did. He won it. I didn’t give it away.”
In the third morning match, 30-year-old Neaton, son of Black Hall superintendent Phil Neaton, faced long-hitting 19-year-old A.J. Ouimet, the Central Connecticut star. Outdriven by as many as 50 yards, Neaton lost the 9th, 10th, and 11th to go from 2-up to 1-down, won the 12th to square the match and finally made a 30-foot birdie putt on 18 to take it.
“He is way longer than I am, but honestly I liked it. I’ve got confidence in my long irons. And they were smart today. Me getting first crack at the approach shots, I think, put some pressure on him to get his wedges closer. And today I made a lot of four to six-foot par saves. We both made a lot of pars.”
The final match of the morning pitted Gross against Central Connecticut’s Drew Aitken. That match also went to the final hole, with Gross winning one up. He hit a six-iron from a “kind of cuppy” lie in the rough to 20 feet below the hole to make par, while Aitken bogeyed.
Gross said he’ll feel no special pressure in the final against Conroy, who turned pro after college and regained his amateur status last year. “I’m kind of freewheeling. I skated by in a couple of matches so I’m ahead of the game,” said Gross.
Spoken like a 20-year-old.