Goshen (July 20). Rasmey Kong says he likes the heat.
He likes the temperature. He likes the pressure. And thanks to a new outlook on the game he’s recently chosen as his life’s work, he likes leading the 2019 Connecticut Open.
Saturday the 22-year-old Kong, in temperatures that hit 94 and felt hotter, backed his opening, competitive-course-record-tying 65 with 66, to reach 13 under par, and lead a red-hot field by four.
On a day when many in a young, strong field went way low, Kong said his round could have been hotter. “If I’d have putted the way I putted yesterday today it could have easily been a 10-under-par round,” he said. As it was he had to “settle” for six birdies, (instead of yesterday’s eight) but no bogeys, to withstand red-number pursuit by a handful of the best pros in the state. As for the heat, Kong said it sure beat early spring high school matches he played for North Haven High School. “I’m skinny, so it doesn’t bother me.”
What Kong calls playing smart—keeping the ball below the hole and controlling spin into Torrington’s sometimes treacherous greens—along with a less self-critical and less analytical approach to the game, has helped him play his best golf, he says, in the last month and a half. He’s bought into dad and caddie Soweth’s advice to get back to “playing” as opposed to working at the game. He struggled with that after turning pro, when golf turned into a burden.
“I’m not letting my golf score define who I am,” said Kong of his new attitude. “I’m putting less pressure on myself and having more fun.” Kong has won twice on the Minor League Golf Tour, in one-day events, but acknowledges that tomorrow will be different. Nevertheless, he said Saturday: “If I keep playing my game plan, kinda no one has a chance.”
Based on the identities of the golfers behind him, and on the rounds they shot Saturday, that may be Joe Namath-level prediction. On the other hand, Namath was right.
Kong says he’ll look at the leaderboards tomorrow. Here’s who he’ll see:
—Jason Thresher, the former three-time Massachusetts Open champion from Suffiield who lost this championship in a playoff two years ago, shot 67 with six birdies and a bogey and is second at 135 (-9).
“I had a much better round today,” said Thresher, who won the 2016-2018 Massachusetts Opens. “I didn’t drive it well yesterday. I drove it much better today and my wedge distances were much more on point. I left a few out there.”
—Twenty-seven-year-old Fletcher Babcock of Danielson did not. He opened with six birdies and an eagle in his first 11 holes and, despite a bogey on his final hole, the 7th, shot 35-30-65, also tying Torrington Country Club’s competitive course record to reach third at -8, tied with Paul Pastore of Fairview Country Club whose 5-birdie, no-bogey round of 67 (-5) got him to eight under as well. (Alex Degunzburg of the eClub of Connecticut also shot 65 after an opening 75 to reach -4).
—Max Theodorakis, who shot 66 yesterday, followed it with a 71 that would also have been in the 60s but for an 18th-hole double bogey after a flyer from the rough took him 20 yards over the impossibly sloped green. Theodorakis is T4 with a group of four players who could, if Kong, Thresher or Babcock slip, ascend to the top.
—Michael VanDerLaan, in a quest to double-duplicate his brother’s accomplishments—he matched his brother’s NCAA Division II Individual title earlier this year and would now like to match his brother’s 2018 Connecticut Open Championship—shot 69 to go with 68 to also land at -7.
“I told my caddie, yesterday was a C-plus and today was a B-minus,” said VanDerLaan. “But if I can get a couple 20-footers to drop, I’m in it. For whoever goes and gets it there’s a 62 out here.” That’s the score that brother John shot last year at New Haven Country Club to go with a pair of 66s and set the Open record at -16.
—Also at seven under is 2015 Open Champion Cody Paladino, who is in the process of regaining his amateur status, with scores identical to VanDerLaan’s, and Paul Pastore of Fairview Country Club in Greenwich, who shot 67 Saturday to creep up the board. He has played on the Mackenzie Tour — PGA Canada.
One shot back of that pack at -6 are Alex Beach, the 2019 PGA Professional Champion from Stamford, an assistant at Westchester Country Club, who eagled the par-5 fifth to go with 5 birdies to shoot 67; amateur Ben Day, who’s putting picked up today when he made eight birdies against three bogeys to shoot 67 for 138; Blake Morris, who led early yesterday with 68, and followed it with 70 today; Arthur Ouimet of Enfield, who plays at Valdosta State, shot 67 today to reach the same number, and 16-year-old Ben James of Milford, the Junior Amateur champion, who was disappointed but stoic about a 71 today. “I think I need 63 tomorrow,” said James. “I’ll play aggressively and try to get it.”
The greens, most low finishers agreed, remain susceptible to scoring, if you put an approach in the right quadrant and kept it below the hole. For Babcock, who had his fellow competitors talking as his red numbers grew to 30 on the back nine, the greens were perfect. “I started off really good, making the putts because I put it in the proper spots. I had a lot of uphill, right-left putts. It’s pretty easy to roll them in.”
Forty-one players (who made a very low cut at +1) will tee off on both No. 1 and No. 8 in twosomes tomorrow morning to allow everyone, but especially the leaders, to avoid severe afternoon temperatures. Tee times will begin at 7:00 a.m. off No.8 and 7:30 of No. 1. The final pairing of Kong and Thresher is set for 8:51.