Three-time Connecticut Junior Champion Bill Salvatore presents the trophy that will now bear his name to 2018 winner Connor Belcastro
About the eighth hole Thursday it dawned on Connor Belcastro that he’d done it again. As he had in three of four Junior Amateur matches earlier in the week, he’d dug himself a hole from which he’d have to climb free.
Which he did, in short order.
Down two holes after the opening nine, Belcastro won four straight to win the 77th Connecticut Junior Amateur Championship at Watertown Golf Club. Winning the 10th and 11th with pars, he birdied the 12th and pared to 13th, allowing him to overtake 15-year-old Matt Doyle, who’s steady hand on the greens had begun to waver. When Belcastro won the 15th with a par as Doyle lipped out a tying putt, Belcastro was dormie three. His par on the par-5 16th was good enough to cinch a 3&2 victory.
“You know, I really don’t feel uncomfortable coming from behind,” said the 17-year-old champion from Rowayton. “I’ve kind of learned to play when down. It doesn’t bother me to be down. But maybe it’s about time I learned how not to do that!”
Doyle, who the day before had defeated highly-respected Justin Mathew, one of only two Connecticut juniors to qualify for next week’s U.S. Junior Amateur at Baltusrol Golf Club, was not able to his his approaches as close as he had earlier in the week, and three-putts from the fringe on both 10 and 11 set off the backslide.
“It’s tough when you’re leaving yourself 50- and 60-footers,” he said. “And today off the tee I was leaving myself in places where it was difficult to get the ball close. My distance control was not quite there.”
When he did put an approach close, as he did on the par-5 seventh, he converted. But so did Belcastro. On the pivotal short-4 12th, both hit shots fairly close—Doyle neatly from the right rough—but Belcastro made the birdie from 15 feet and Doyle was unable to convert from a couple feet further.
On thirteen, the usually accurate Doyle drove left out of bounds. He hit his fourth to about 12 feet and made the “birdie”—a five this time—but Belcastro, after leaving a 40-foot approach putt 12 or 13 feet past, made the come-backer.
It was at 13 that things might have gone very differently if not for a moment of sportsmanship on Doyle’s part. Belcastro had moved his marker for Doyle, and was about to putt without replacing it when Doyle reminded him to put it back. Had he not, and had Belcastro putted from the incorrect position, he would have forfeited the hole and the match would have been even.
“That was really great of him,” said Belcastro. Doyle said it was automatic. “If I had not done the right thing and had gone on to win, it wouldn’t have felt like a win,” he said. “That’s no way to win.”
For Belcastro it had been a week of curious challenges. That began with a very tough draw. To reach the final, the Brunswick rising senior had to meet and defeat two of his friends and school teammates: Matt Camel and Thomas VanBelle, Camel arguably the hottest junior in the country last week. The week before he had won the AJGA Otter Creek Junior Championship in Columbus, Indiana by 10 shots, matching an AJGA 54-scoring record of 19 under par and, incredibly, making holes-in-one in two consecutive rounds. Camel, a favorite at Watertown, had eliminated another favorite, CIAC Open Champion Chris Fosdick, in 19 holes. In the semis Belcastro came from behind to defeat Darien’s 16-year-old star Alexander Gu, two up.
Fifteen minutes before the Gu match, warming up, Belcastro discovered a crack in his Callaway Rogue driver. Watertown Head Professional Ian Marshall, himself a former Junior Amateur Champion, replaced the head with a newer Rogue head and, with “four or five holes” of adjustment, the very adaptable Belcastro was comfortable. Meaning that he was hitting his drives about 300 yards again.
“I really owe Ian a debt of gratitude,” said Belcastro. “He saved me.”
What also saved him was philosophy grounded in patience and the knowledge that mistakes happen and opportunities will come. “A lot of people try to play match play really aggressively, try to make birdies at all costs and end up making some big numbers. I try to make birdies the old fashioned way. I make them when they’re there.”
Belcastro’s cool demeanor, whether up or down in matches, may be genetic. His parents Luke and Juliana were on hand to support him Thursday and it turns out they know a little about winning under pressure. The couple have won two Sleepy Hollow Husband-Wife Championships, both in playoffs. They followed Connor’s earlier matches—nervously, they said— online, but decided they needed to be at Watertown for the final.
“We thought he was doing so well with us not being here maybe we shouldn’t come,” said Luke, a 6 handicap. “But not showing up for the final? They could take away your parental credentials for that!”
When it was all over Luke and Juliana deemed their son’s favorite style of match play, coming from behind, even more nerve-wracking in person than it had been remotely.
On the other hand, it seems to be working.
Connor’s name now goes on a trophy that henceforth will be known as the William A. Salvatore Trophy, after Watertown star Salvatore, who won the Junior Amateur three consecutive times from 1956 through 1958, the only player in Connecticut history to win the championship three times.
Mr. Salvatore was on hand to officially present the trophy he claimed in historic fashion 60 years earlier to Connecticut’s newest champion. Acknowledging his love for Watertown Golf Club and his appreciation of the CSGA for placing his name on the permanent trophy, Mr. Slavatore said, “I am so humbled by this honor.”