(Bill Hermanson finished runnerup - one shot behind Ray Underwood)
October 2, 2018: Shorehaven GC - Norwalk
Ray Underwood figured it would be tough. And Ray Underwood was right.
Underwood won the 73rd Connecticut Senior Amateur Championship on difficult Shorehaven Golf Club Tuesday, but not before watching a four-shot cushion he’d built with only eight holes to play shrink to two as he and Hall of Famer Bill Hermanson played the uphill par-4 18th into the wind, and then to one as Hermanson made a 15-footer from off the green for par and Underwood faced a knee-knocking two-footer to win his first individual senior major.
“You know, I tend to kinda jerk those little ones,” said left-hander Underwood afterward. “Don’t think that didn’t cross my mind.”
But what crossed his mind no longer crosses up Underwood’s golf game, these days thanks to a lot of work this summer on both the short and mental games. He made the putt and took the silver bowl that Hermanson, who has won virtually every Connecticut regular and senior championship, won in 2015.
“Bill’s a champion, a great champion,” said Underwood, “so there was no thought in my mind that this was going to be a cakewalk. I know Bill. I knew he was coming at some point, and he did.”
It took a while.
Hermanson, who fought his putter all day and had, by his calculation 6 three-putts Tuesday, had helped build Underwood’s cushion by three-putting the par-4 ninth, while Underwood birdied, and then the par-4 tenth from 12 feet above the hole as Underwood parred. Hermanson also missed a 6-foot birdie putt on the par-5 11th, watched as Underwood made a nifty 6-foot side-hiller for par on 12, and three-putted from just off the green on 13. At that point, all seemed lost for the former champion.
And then he was Hermanson again, slugging. On the short par-4 14th, he missed a birdie attempt from above a treacherous downhill hole location, but made the six-footer coming back. Underwood, who had hit the green with a wedge, was the one to three putt this time. The margin was three. On the short par-3 15th Hermanson hit it to 15 feet left of the hole. Underwood responded with a shot directly over the pin that settled just four feet behind it. But Hermanson deftly holed his side-hiller, and Underwood missed badly.
“I made an awful stroke.” said Underwood. “I putted pretty well these two days, but I admit it. At that point I was feeling it.”
But with the pressure now on, at both the par-5 16th and the long par-3 17th, Underwood hit shots close, setting up the battle on 18. Hermanson, partially blocked by a tree, hit a long iron to just off the green. Underwood’s second settled just over a greenside bunker. Hermanson, charged his putt and went well past, but made the come-backer. Underwood pitched to 20 feet, missed, and made the short putt to win by one.
“To me, Bill is a great ball striker and what hurt him today was his putting,” said Underwood. “And I have worked to be a better ballstriker, but I’ll never be in his league. Still I take a lot of pride in the shots I made coming down the stretch, on 15 and especially on 17,” where Underwood hit his tee shot to the 196-yard hole to about 12 feet after Hermanson had put his to about 15 feet.
For his part, Hermanson said he was pleased with the way he climbed out of the hole those three-putts had dug, but agreed that in the end, they cost him. “You just can’t three-putt ten times over two days and expect to win a championship,” he said. “You just can’t. And Ray played great.”
Nine years ago, when he turned 55, Underwood’s dream was one CSGA individual title, of which Bill Hermanson owns many. Underwood credits recent work with sport psychologist Josh Brant and teacher Tommy Sullivan, and an old baseball player’s love of competition with making that happen. Better ballstriking, better sand play, and a fearlessness that he once lacked. But it was a struggle. While he won at the club level, that state-wide title had, for almost a decade, eluded him.
“As the bar was raised either I felt inferior or whatever, but I don’t feel that way anymore,” said Underwood. “I’ve worked hard, and maybe it was a matter of just convincing myself that I could do it.”
On Tuesday Underwood not only got his major, but earned a spot on the Connecticut Tri-State team that will compete against Rhode Island and Massachusetts later this month at Oyster Harbors Club. Hermanson and Defending Champion Patrick McGuiness, who finished third, will also be part of the team.