Goshen (July 19). It comes as no surprise to Rasmey Kong that he’s leading the 85th Connecticut Open. Or at least that he shot the low round of 65 Friday.
“Really it isn’t,” said Kong after sinking a 15-footer for birdie on his last hole, the 7th, his eighth of the day. “I’ve been playing like this for a month and a half.”
The West Haven native, who turned pro in December and now splits his time between Connecticut and West Palm Beach, made 8 birdies and a single three-putt bogey to take the lead late in the day.
Kong took advantage of softened conditions on a day that began in cool fog, progressed to hot haze, and ended as an evening in the 90s, thankfully with a merciful breeze. He missed only three fairways, one green, and took what he called a less-analytical, and more “play” filled approach to the game.
His first months as a pro, Kong said, were a struggle. “I hated it. I wasn’t playing well and it wasn’t fun.”
What changed? He stopped beating balls and remembered golf’s a game.
“I’ve hit probably 30 golf balls on the range in the last month and a half. I putt here and there and I play 9 or 18 every day. I don’t think anymore. I just play golf. I know I have the talent. I worked so hard when I was younger. It’s still a sport, even if you’re a pro.” His father Soweth, who encourages that more instinctive approach is “my mentor, my coach and my sponsor,” said Rasmey.
Chasing the leader was a crowd led by two amateurs, who would be, should one of them to win, the first Connecticut Open champion who did not play for pay since Jeff Hedden in 2008.
And Max Theodorakis and 16-year-old Ben James are not here to be close, they’ll tell you.
“I want to win,” said Theodorakis, who’s had his share of near-misses in this championship. “I don’t want second. I don’t want third. I want to win.” Just 21 and coming off of his best season at Campbell University, where he’ll be a senior, Theodorakis shot six-under 66, finishing just a half hour before Kong.
“I didn’t make any mistakes, really,” he said. “I missed a few birdie putts but I hit 17 greens, so whenever you do that you’re gonna have a lot of looks. I kept it below the hole. That was my main goal….and no three putts.” His only regret was playing the par-5s in just one under. In 2017 at Ellington Ridge Country Club Theodorakis lost in a playoff to Suffield’s Jason Thresher and eventual winner Jeff Evanier. In 2018 at New Haven he tied fourth and was Low Amateur when “John VanDerLaan and CJ Swift ran away with it,” as he put it.
Theodorakis made six birdies and no bogeys Friday, birdieing five times on the front and once on the back. He finished his round by coaxing in a 6-footer on the 7th hole.
Also making no bogeys was 16-year-old amateur James of Milford, who earlier this month won the Junior Amateur Championship at Watertown Golf Club. He shot 67 (-5), packing13 pars around a string of five consecutive birdies on holes 12 through 16 and like Theodorakis had one thought in mind. “I know there are a lot of good players,” said James, who’ll be a sophomore at Hamden Hall in the fall. “But I have a lot of experience. I plan on coming to win. I know I’m playing well and I think I’m one of the top guys here.”
Bunched within three shots of the leader were four of those top guys at 68: CJ Swift, runner-up to John VanDerLaan last year; John’s younger brother Michael, who this year matched his big brother’s NCAA Division II Individual Championship the year after John had done it; Blake Morris, of the Country Club of Waterbury; Jason Thresher, who was part of the three way playoff with Theodorakis in 2017 and who won three consecutive Mass Open championships (2016-2018), and Cody Paladino, the 2015 Open Champion, who is awaiting reinstatement as an amateur.
Swift shot 14 under in 2018, shattering the championship record himself while losing to VanDerLaan. The posters of past champions lining the roadway to the clubhouse Friday brought all that back, Swift said.
“As soon as I drove in I saw John VanDerLaan’s picture as a past winner so that gave me a little extra motivation,” smiled Swift.
For Morris, his round was the continuation of strong play as a professional as tries to “get better to point where you have what I call a job, meaning playing on Sundays, one the web or the PGA Tour.” (He played in his first PGA Tour event last year, made the cut in a web.com tour event and won four times on the Minor League Golf Tour.”
“I’m trending,” smiled Morris, who made seven birdies, a double and a bogey in his first round. “A lot of good and some bad. You can definitely make a lot of birdies out here. But this course has a lot of tricks to it where you can make some not so good scores quickly without doing a lot of bad. My key for me the rest of the week is just keeping bogeys off the card.”
He finished early and missed some of the afternoon’s intense heat. “I’m not known as a great first-round guy so for me getting off to a decent start is pretty cool. I’m usually a second-round guy. It wasn’t a great score, but it was something good. So now it’s just keep trying to get under par each nine for the rest of the week.”
Morris was right when he said, “I guarantee you when I come back tomorrow I won’t be leading.”
For VanDerLaan, who seems to match everything his brother does—“We compete at everything, golf, basketball and catching the biggest fish”—68 puts him just where he wanted to be. “My goal was 68 each day.” Theodorakis and Kong agreed that -12 might be the number this year. Morris wasn’t so sure.
“A lot of that is going to depend on the weather and the pins. If the greens get faster and you get some difficult pins, it can get real tough because there is so much slope on the greens.”
The uncertainty invites any number of contenders who were among the 25 who beat par on Friday.
As Torrington head professional Glenn Carlson, put it: “Length is not a big deal here. It’s about the greens, and not just the par 3s. It’s not really a bogey course but you can make a lot of them if you put the ball in the wrong spot on these greens.”