Ben Day of New Haven Country Club capped off a remarkable charge at the Country Club of Waterbury by defeating John Flaherty of TPC River Highlands on the first playoff hole to win the 12th Russell C. Palmer Cup. Day fired rounds of 69-62-63 for an even-par total and sealed the victory with a birdie on the first playoff hole.
Conducted by the Connecticut State Golf Association, the Russell C. Palmer Cup was a three round stroke play competition played at the Country Club of Waterbury on Monday and Tuesday, May 18th and 19th. Named for former Executive Director of the CSGA and Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame Member, Russell C. Palmer, the event featured Connecticut's top amateur golfers who were vying for the state's amateur stroke play title.
After opening with a round of four over-par 69, Day began the 34-hole finale eight shots behind overnight leader, Geoff Vartelas of Lyman Orchards Golf Course. Starting on the front nine for his second round, Day made the turn in one over-par (+5 for the championship), and it seemed that the possibility of a second day charge might be out of reach. After making four birdies on the way in, he stood at one over-par for the championship and just four strokes out of the lead.
“The possibility of winning never really crossed my mind until the third round,” said Day. “After shooting three under-par in the morning, I saw the leaderboard and I knew that I had a chance. But it wasn’t until the 5th hole, our 14th hole that I learned the lead had dropped to even-par. At that point, I was two over and I knew it was within reach.” Day would go on to birdie the 296-yard, par-4, 6th hole after driving the green, and birdied the par-4, 7th hole, the second most difficult hole all week. He closed the gap to finish at even-par and the clubhouse lead.
Among the players needing to make a move on day two was John Flaherty, last year’s Runner-Up. He shot rounds of 69-65 to stand at four over-par, a full seven shots behind Masso heading into the final round. “Going into the final round, I was so far behind that I didn’t really have thoughts of last year’s loss in my mind,” said Flaherty. “I made a couple of birdies on the front to get it to two over-par for the tournament and I thought if I could get it to even-par I would have a chance.”
Playing with Day, Flaherty knew that he needed something special on his final hole, the par-5 ninth. After reaching the green in two strokes, Flaherty rolled in a thirty-foot side hill eagle putt to pull even with Day at even-par for the championship.
With Day and Flaherty finishing a full hour before the final group, they shared the clubhouse lead. It was then up to some of Connecticut’s best amateurs to catch them. “Being in the same group as Flaherty really helped me – we were both pulling for each other out there and we kind of fed off each other’s good play,” said Day.
Among the chasers was Zach Zaback of TPC River Highlands, the reigning CSGA Player of the Year. After rounds of 64 and 67, he stood at one over-par heading into the final round. Steady golf of two bogies matched with two birdies left him one behind the leaders heading into the final two holes. After seeing the leaderboard perched next to the 17th green, Zaback knew what he needed to do. While in the air, his approach appeared to be headed for a tap-in birdie. However, his ball hit the flagstick in mid-air and bounced twenty-feet away. He would miss the putt and par the last hole to finish one behind the leaders.
His fellow UConn teammate, Chris Wiatr of the Country Club of Waterbury, also had his chances, and held the lead through much of the back nine. However, closing bogies on two of his final four holes and a three-putt par on the par-5 9th left him looking in on the outside.
Corey Birch of Silver Spring Country Club was the only remaining player on the course to have a chance, needing an eagle on the 18th to join the group at even-par. After his approach sailed by the hole, only Day and Flaherty found themselves in a playoff for the title. The two players proceeded back to the 18th hole, a brutal 445-yard par-4. First to play, Flaherty blocked his tee shot to the right, and his ball wound up against the boundary fence, while Day calmly striped his drive down the left side of the fairway. Despite a great recovery by Flaherty and a valiant effort, the playoff was Day’s to lose. He hit his approach to 25 feet and calmly rolled in the birdie putt for his long-awaited first CSGA Major Championship.
“I’m still surprised I won, to be honest. I’ve been so close so many times and I feel like I’ve been knocking on the door,” said Day. “This morning, I played a great back-nine and all of a sudden I looked up and said, ‘Wow, now I’m in the tournament.’ I’ve learned a lot from being in contention and there have been times that I’ve gone over in my head the mistakes I made that cost me the tournament. I think having been there before really helped me stay aggressive today.”
Day’s remarkable charge wouldn’t have been possible without some help from the final group. First round leader, Geoff Vartelas of Lyman Orchards Golf Course, opened with a four under-par 61 on Monday and seemed poised to capture his first CSGA championship. However, a bogey, double-bogey start in the morning for Vartelas set the tone for his day. Despite making three birdies on his way in, he struggled to stay in contention after shooting a round of three over-par. A closing round of four over-par would leave Vartelas in a tie for seventh.
“Being the first round leader, it was definitely a challenge walking out there, in contention, and trying to keep my head straight and just hit good shots,” said Vartelas. “I’m a little disappointed, I thought it was out there for me if I could have kept the ball in play a bit more and made a few more putts.”
Playing with Vartelas, Michael Masso of Lake of Isles shot a round of three under-par 62 in the opening round. After playing stellar golf in the morning, Masso held the lead by two strokes going into the final round. However, after opening with a birdie, he went on to play holes 3 through 8 in six over-par, despite a late charge leaving him two strokes behind. Masso would go on to finish tied for sixth, his best career finish in the Russell C. Palmer Cup.
When all was said and done, there were a total of seven lead changes on day two. Midway through the final nine holes, ten players all stood within two shots of the lead, making this one of the most dramatic and exciting finishes in tournament history.
The win marked Day’s first CSGA Major Championship, but the win was far from unexpected for the 34 year-old journeyman. Day was a quarter-finalist in the 2013 Connecticut Amateur Championship and has finished inside the top-10 at the Palmer Cup the past two years. Most recently, Day joined his brother, Daniel, in San Francisco, California for the inaugural U.S. Four-Ball Championship at the Olympic Club. The pair qualified for the championship last fall at Mill River Country Club and successfully advanced to match play before falling to Ryan McCarthy and Patrick McCormick by a score of 2 and 1. A win today was no doubt a crowning achievement and a culmination of years of hard work and dedication.
“This is without a doubt the biggest victory of my career. It’s our stroke play amateur championship and it was a great field of the best amateurs in the state. Any time you can win a tournament of this magnitude, it’s a thrill and I’m just very excited to have my name on the trophy,” said Day.
The Country Club of Waterbury has hosted the Russell C. Palmer Cup seven times in the history of the event, the most of any club. It has also hosted ten Connecticut Amateur Championships and the 2005 Connecticut Open Championship. No doubt for Day, the Donald Ross course will hold a special place in his heart after capturing his first title. “This place [CC of Waterbury] is like a home away from home for me. I love this place, and I think I’ll love it forever after today,” said a smiling Day.
The CSGA Championship Season continues on Monday, June 1st with the start of the 9th Senior Match Play Championship being contested over three days at the Golf Club at Oxford Greens in Oxford, Connecticut. Admission is free, and spectators are encouraged to attend. For more information, visit CTSrMatchPlay.com.
About the Connecticut State Golf Association
The Russell C. Palmer Cup is one of 18 championship tournaments conducted by the Connecticut State Golf Association. The CSGA functions as an extension of the USGA and provides stewardship for amateur golf in Connecticut. Founded in 1899, it is the country's oldest state golf association and conducts over 50 Championships, Qualifiers and One-Day Tournaments throughout the year. For more information, visit our website at csgalinks.org.