Watertown (July 5, 2020) In the past 25 years, there have been no repeat winners in the Connecticut Junior Amateur. Not Brett Stegmaier. Not Mike Ballo, Jr.. Not Andrew Sciarretta. Not Evan Grenus.
But one had to think this might be the year.
Defending Champion Ben James, 17, after winning the Junior last year at Watertown Golf Club, went on to place third alone at the Connecticut Open in July and win points for the U.S. Junior Presidents Cup team in December. He had won the AJGA’s Killington Championship prior to the Junior, and after his Junior Amateur win, went on to win his second consecutive New England Junior. He won his second consecutive Northern Junior Championship as well. This year he made the quarterfinals in the Connecticut Amateur at Shorehaven, narrowly losing to finalist and former Amateur Champion Cody Paladino.
But things happen, and they happened to James.
He committed to play in the prestigious North & South Men’s Championship at Pinehurst, N. C., and between the time he did and tournament play this week, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey included North Carolina on the list of states from which visitors were required to self-quarantine for two weeks upon return to Connecticut. Unless Connecticut protocol changes, James will not be able to play.
A successful defense has been accomplished only eight times in the championship’s 79-year-history. Until now the reason usually given is that “anything can happen in match play.” This year it’s, “Anything can happen with COVID-19.”
Whether James is able to participate or not, the field at Watertown will be strong, and any number of players could challenge him for the title. The golf course as always will be accessible, but a handful.
“I expect the course to play firm, fast, and fair,” says Superintendent Paul Bonini, who is president of the Connecticut Association of Golf Course Superintendents. “It is always a fun week and regardless of what we try to do the junior amateurs keep getting better each year.”
The greens, says Bonini, might be a little faster than usual—high 9’s to just over 10 on the Stimpmeter. “The tournament is following the Fourth of July weekend this year so they could be a little faster than year’s past,” says Bonini. “The big struggle will be the rough on Monday and Tuesday; it has been growing very fast this year and we hope to get out in front of play on Monday to knock it down a little.”
A Dozen to Watch
Among challengers to watch:
Madison’s Matthew Doyle, who this week won the Connecticut Junior PGA Championship at Keney Park in Hartford by 10 shots, shooting 67-65-132 (-8), the only player under par. Doyle was also one of 32 who made match play at the Connecticut Amateur, losing in the opening round to Shorehaven member Jason Jaworoski.
Alex Gu, a recent graduate of Darien High School who will attend Dartmouth in the fall, made the Junior Amateur semi-finals in 2018, losing to eventual champion Connor Belcastro. Gu also made match play in 2019, losing in round one. Last year he won the CIAC Open Championship at Black Hall and the Connecticut PGA Junior Championship.
Kyle St. Pierre of Shelton, a semi-finalist last year at Watertown, losing to eventual champion James. St. Pierre, the son of professional Jim St. Pierre of Newtown Country Club, finished T13 at the Connecticut Junior PGA Championship.
Michael Hanratty of Farmington Woods Golf Club, who took medalist Brad Tilley to extra holes at Shorehaven in the Amateur in June. Hanratty made day three of the Open at New Haven in 2018 as a 16-year-old. He was a semi-finalist in the Junior Amateur last year, losing to Gunnar Granito.
Will Lodge, a junior playing out of the Country Club of Darien, tied fourth in the AJGA UHY / Celadon Junior Championship last August.
Christopher Pieper of Woodbury, who finished second at the Connecticut PGA Junior, shooting 70-72-142. Pieper made match play at last year’s Junior Amateur. This June he finished T4 at the 18-Hole Cas Coscina Junior Invitational at Stanley Golf Club.
Jackson Roman of Kensington, who lost last year in the first round to medalist Chris Fosdick, now the Connecticut Amateur champion. Roman reached match play in last year’s Connecticut Amateur. He also won the Champions Tour Classic on the PGA Junior Tour at Shennecossett last August.
Jack Bosworth of Simsbury, a high school junior, who has made match play for the past two years. Bosworth defeated Pieper in round one last year, then lost to James. He was T9 in the Connecticut Junior PGA Championship at Keney.
Calvin Smith of Wee Burn Country Club, who made the round of 16 in the 2019 Connecticut Amateur, made the quarterfinals in the Junior Amateur last year, falling to Hanratty. He and Gu have been the anchors of a very strong Darien High School team.
Sam Ives, also of Wee Burn reached match play last year as well. He was T7 in the in the Met PGA Future Series: Eisenhower Spring Challenge and T6 in the Fall Challenge last year.
Ben Loomis of New Canaan, who made the round of 16 last year, before losing to Smith. He was an alternate in U.S. Junior Amateur Qualifying at Clinton Country Club last year.
Jacob Lindsay, a rising senior who plays out of Shuttle Meadow Country Club, qualified for the Connecticut Amateur this year and tied for third at the CIAC Open at Black Hall last year.
Though long hitters have won the Junior Amateur the past two years, length isn’t everything at Watertown, which will measure about 6400 yards and play to par 71. Many in the field hit it far enough to leave short-iron approaches to par4s, and matches often go to the player who hits those closest and then navigates the subtle breaks of Watertown greens.
The course’s three par 5s give even medium hitters an opportunity for birdie. Though the 7th is a three-shotter for most at 542 yards, both the first (478) and the 16th (498) are under 500 and reachable for most of these challengers.
Matches often turn on Watertown’s par 3s. Averaging almost 190 yards, they are well-bunkered and getting up and down depends on where you miss. The 9th is the longest at just over 200 yards, but the 15th, with an undulating green surrounded by sand, is often critical late in a match.
With a finish comprising a short par 5, one short and one medium-length par 4, (337 and 398 yards), the course often produces late-match turnarounds. “Watertown, like so many other golf courses, has its own quirks, and member knowledge helps,” says Bonini, “but the key is to stay below the hole, especially on the closing holes.”
All but 11 of 78 Junior Amateurs have been played at Watertown, which dates to the 19th century. Nine holes were built on the Horace Taft estate in 1898, designed reportedly by Seth Raynor. The club was established in 1915 when Taft moved the nine hole course to the grounds of The Taft School. In 1931 a second nine and the clubhouse were built. From 1971 to 1973 nine holes were added in the hillier property North of West Road, with the original nine reverting to athletic fields for the school. The “new” nine includes the club’s signature 12th hole, a short par-4 that tempts players to drive its sloping green, but punishes those who stray.
Competitors 18 holes of stroke play Monday with the low 32 advancing to match play. A 18-hole final will take place on Thursday, July 9. The winner of the final will receive the William A. Salvatore trophy. Salvatore, of Watertown, won the Junior Amateur three consecutive times from 1956 to 1958, the only player ever to do so.