(Matt Doyle will meet Connor Belcastro in the finals of the 77th Junior Amateur)
June 11, 2018: To reach the Connecticut Junior Amateur Championship final, Greenwich’s Connor Belcastro simply had to:
—Take out a guy who the previous week had won a tournament by 10 shots, shot 19 under for three rounds, a record, and made holes-in-one in two those rounds
—Outplay one of the steadiest, most consistent ball strikers in the state, Darien’s 16-year-old star, Alexander Gu
—Beat two Brunswick School buddies and teammates
—Shoot par or better in each of his four match-play rounds
—Come from behind in all but one of his four matches
Oh. And replace his cracked Callaway driver head 15 minutes before his afternoon round Tuesday. That, he said, took a little getting used to. “I think about four or five holes,” he said.
On Thursday, Belcastro’s challenge will be a 15-year-old Matt Doyle of Madison, who, despite a congenital hip ailment that requires him to use a cart, played his first 36 holes of match play with an average of 4 birdies a round and Wednesday afternoon eliminated one of two Connecticut juniors to qualify for the U.S. Junior Amateur next week at Baltustrol Golf Club: Justin Mathew. Doyle did that in large part because he birdied four of the first five holes, used only 25 putts in 17 holes and won 2&1.
In other words, the world is as it should be. Two players at the top of their games will meet for the 77th Junior Amateur Championship tomorrow at Watertown Golf Club. And they’ll share surprising similar strategies.
“My philosophy will be the same as it was with the first match,” said Belcastro. “Take your opportunities, but don’t get crazy. I’m not one to go after birdies where if it doesn’t work you make double. I try to just keep making pars. It’s not gambling, it’s chess. Match play’ is chess. You can usually count on guys to make mistakes. And maybe I’ll make a few birdies along the way.”
The quarterfinal matches of the 77th Junior Amateur Championship Wednesday morning offered more evidence that in match play golf no lead is secure. Turnarounds were the order of the morning.
“It was weird,” said Gu. By weird he meant that he went from 5 up after nine holes to all square after 16 and, though he won on the final hole, seemed still shocked a half hour later. Gu’s opponent, Jack Maguire, victim of three Gu birdies in the first five holes, recovered with a birdie on the par-4 tenth, another on the par-5 16th and, with Gu bogeying three times, brought the match to even. Maguire, who shot 40 on the front, was good for 35 on the back to make it close.
The featured match of the morning might have been the Battle of Brunswick. Five players from Brunswick School competed in the Amateur, four making it to match play. In the his morning match, Belcastro met friend and Brunswick teammate Thomas VanBelle. More turnarounds here. Belcastro, down three after four holes, evened the match on the ninth, and birdieing the par-4s, 10 and 11, built a four-up lead after 14 and held on to win 2&1.
“It was a little strange playing a friend like that, said Belcastro. “You know, you look at a putt you normally would not give but you want to give and you have to remind yourself to stay focused on the competition.”
The match between Doyle and Suffield’s Bryan McLennan was a bit more conventional, though McLennan, too crawled out of an early hole to make it interesting. Down three after four holes—Doyle birdied two of them—McLennan narrowed the lead to one after ten, and was two down on 16 when Doyle chipped in for eagle to end the match.
The tightest match of the morning by far pitted Greenwich’s Billy Nail, a semifinalist in 2017, with Justin Mathew, of Northwest Catholic. That match never saw a lead of more than two, and reverted to all square four times before Mathew, who will play next week in the U.S. Junior Amateur at Baltusrol Golf Club, eagled the 19th hole—the par-5 first—to win.
Doyle, who, despite the grind of 54 holes in three days, said it was a similar game plan that got him through.
“I was not as mentally tired today as I was yesterday. I think that’s because I had confidence in my short game, so that if I missed a green or made a mistake, I was going to be all right. I Just made sure I missed it on the correct side. Tomorrow: Hit fairways, hit greens, give myself a few chances at birdie.”
Both Doyle and Belcastro weathered their toughest matches in the afternoon quarterfinals. Belcastro was down early, squared the match by the ninth hole, but never had more than a one-hole advantage until the 18th hole. Doyle was also down early, but took advantage of a torrid putting touch to record birdies of 35 feet and 25 feet, along with a par save of 15 feet and other short biridie to build a four-hole lead. Mathew fought back and reduced it to one at 16 as he Doyle bogeyed twice and Mathew made two late birdies. After a long drive on 17, Doyle sank a 15-foot birdie putt and it was over.
That came a hole after he tested the left hip malformation that forced him to quit other sports at 11 and concentrate on golf. It’s called Legg-Calves-Perthes disease and describes a malformed and wrongly positioned femur in his left hip that necessitates the cart (driven by his grandmother Sue Dostal). “I don’t worry about it usually,” said Mike Doyle, Matt’s father. “But with certain shots, next to roots or near a tree, say, that can cause damage. The tendon gets caught between the bones. It’s painful. ” A 4-iron out of deep rough on 16 made Dad wince, but Matt “walked” out of the shot, Gary Player-like, as he’s been advised to do, and all was well.
Doyle is aware of Connor’s game.
“He seems like a nice guy,” said Doyle after. “I’m looking forward to it. I know he hits it a long way, so I’ll have to rely on good iron play and putting. My putting was great today.”
Reflecting on the 72 holes of matches, Belcastro was philosophical. “In a sense Matt and I are playing with house money. We’ve made it this far. Getting to the finals has earned us exemptions to some super-cool tournaments. We’ve made a splash. I don’t want to speak for Matt, but I’m sure he feels that same way as I do. We’re proud of how we’ve played this week.”