Waterbury (August 15, 2020) If there’s ever been a tournament as unpredictable as this year’s Palmer Cup presented by Chris Cote’s Golf Shop, you might have to go back to the British Open of 2003. Ben Curtis won that one.
Remember Ben Curtis? He won the first major championship he played in.
This year’s field at the Country Club of Waterbury includes, as that championship did, an endless list of strong favorites, and yet offers the potential for surprise. Waterbury, like Royal St. George’s, can do that to a field with talent, especially with a bit of wind, which is expected this week.
“I kind of have a feast or famine relationship with Waterbury,” says Defending Champion Rick Hayes of Silver Spring Country Club. “I mean there are great holes like No. 2 which I don’t know if I’ve ever figured out, but you get into the middle of the round on Nos. 6, 7, 10, 11, 13, it’s not an automatic driver….you can hit hybrid, work the ball, there are a lot of options, and that makes it interesting and maybe gets you more focused. It gets you into that kind of mid-am mindset of really playing shot by shot.”
Certainly, a mid-am could win this year, as Hayes did last year. But there are many ways surprise could become the order of the day. Consider the many scenarios:
—Jamie Sheltman, the best player over the past two years not to win a CSGA major, finally breaks through.
—Seth Jainchill, who won the One Day team event at Manchester with Pat McKenna, and then finished third at the Public Links, just two back, gets his major.
—Pat Casey of Torrington, a newly reinstated amateur who shared Low-Am honors at the Connecticut Open with first-round leader Saptak Talwar, finishing T8.
—Cody Paladino, arguably the strongest player in the field, having won not only the Palmer Cup (2013) but also the Open and the Amateur, makes up for the heartbreaking defeat at Shorehaven in the Amateur (where he shot -9 on the final day only to lose), and makes the Palmer Cup his first win in his second amateur career.
—Nick Piersall, the Bryant star who has been hanging around, playing well, this summer, makes the leap forward to snatch a big win.
—Danny Murphy, who made the quarters at Shorehaven, and who qualified for the final day at both the Open and Public Links, uses his prodigious length to out-wedge and out-birdie the field.
—Andrew Sciarretta of Brooklawn, who came within a putt of winning this championship two years ago, brings it home.
—Amateur Champion Chris Fosdick, who slayed the Brad Tilley dragon at Shorehaven before outshooting Cody Paladino, and was T17 at the Open.
—UCONN star Chandler Morris, who grew up playing Waterbury and was runner-up to Rick Dowling in the 2019 Connecticut Amateur.
—Or one of the “old” guys: Bill Hermanson and Bob Murphy are both in the field. Hermanson finished T4 last year, just three shots back at 219 (+12), in chilly, windy weather. Murphy made match play at the Amateur. And of course, Hall of Famer Dave Szewczul who even at age 66 is always considered among the favorites in any tournament he enters.
But it’s easy to gravitate to the 11:00 a.m. pairing that features the last three Connecticut Amateur champions—Fosdick (2020), Rick Dowling (2019) and Ben Conroy (2018), who won his Amateur right here at Waterbury. Or the 10:40 group, the one that includes the defending champion, and which is all “mid-am.”
That group includes Hayes, who not only won the Palmer Cup here but years before lost in a playoff; Ben Day, for whom Waterbury is home, who narrowly defeated Hayes at Shuttle Meadow in a playoff at the Mid-Amateur; and Brian Ahern, the 2018 Champion at the Country Club of Farmington who won the Amateur here in 1999, who has recovered from back surgery and played beautifully so far this year.
“It’ll be a blast,” said Ahern. “I’m really looking forward to it and the Mid-Amateur the week after.” Ahern, the 2018 Palmer Cup victor at Farmington, reached the semifinals in the Amateur at Waterbury that year. “I’ve played a lot there, probably 20 rounds, and I love it. First, because it’s Donald Ross. It’s always in pristine shape. It’s a course you have to think your way around. And the greens are great.”
2019 Mid-Am Champion Day has similar appreciation for “the old lady” as the members sometimes refer to Waterbury.
“At Waterbury there is no ‘gimme’ hole out there. Every shot has the potential to put you in a situation that’s hard to recover from. It has a difficult start, a difficult finish. It has holes that turn left and holes that turn right. You have shots above your feet below your feet. You have to play and keep our wits about you. It’s just a heavyweight that keeps punching.”
Ahern agrees that Waterbury’s a “mid-am” course in that it rewards brains over brawn and maturity over impatience. He points to the 13th hole as one where choices and execution especially matter. “You know, you’re well into your round at that point. You have a choice off the tee. Some guys hit hybrid, some hit driver to get all the way down on the flat. But right is disaster, you’re just chipping out [of the trees] and left is water. If you’re hitting a mid-iron in there, you’re hitting to an uphill green which is severe. So not long, but no easy hole, either, and important. That can really color the rest of your round.”
It did last year when Morris, having just moved into the lead, found the penalty area off the tee, made triple-bogey seven and wound up settling for third.
“What’ I’m really looking forward to is not playing in 50-degree weather,” said Ahern, who took last year off from competitive golf to nurse his back after surgery. Indeed the weather is predicted to be partly sunny in the 80s, with a small chance of rain, and 8-degree wind, not typical Palmer Cup—early May—weather.
There he gets a second from Day. “I think the scores will be lower, that’s no secret,” said Day. “The course is drier and it will play shorter. But that said, Waterbury knows how to identify the players who are at their best.”
“I’ve played great there but played terribly, too,” said Hayes. “But it’s a place where I have a memory bank of good shots that I can call on on holes like 14, where you may be hitting hybrid 225 yards. And you need that.”
The Russell C. Palmer Cup, presented by Chris Cote’s Golf Shop, is the state’s premier stroke-play championship. It comprises 54 holes, with a cut to the low 39 and ties after round one, and thirty-six holes on day two. It is named for Russell C. Palmer, former CSGA Executive Director (1986-1995) and inductee into the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame (1997). Mr. Palmer’s numerous accomplishments include establishing the use of GHIN throughout CSGA member clubs and initiating the purchase of the “Connecticut Golf House” which for 30 years has served as the home of the CSGA.