With rough made more difficult after a late Tuesday rain storm, an overnight temperature drop of thirty degrees, and a stiff wind blowing throughout, the final 18 holes of the Connecticut Women’s Open looked to be a battle against the elements. It turned out to be a two-woman fight for the title between four-time champion Liz Caron of Stamford, and 23 year-old Georgian, Carmen Bandea.
Conducted by the Connecticut State Golf Association, the Connecticut Women’s Open is a 36-hole stroke play competition being played at Wampanoag Country Club in West Hartford, Connecticut on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 27th and 298th. The tournament is open to any amateur or professional female golfer regardless of residency, and annually attracts some of the top competitors from across the country.
Playing to a par of 72 at 5,804 yards, Wampanoag Country Club proved a difficult test with weather conditions more commonly seen in the British Isles. The first round 68s fired by Caron and co-leader Lindsay Ann Aho of Brush Prairie, Washington seemed to have happened in a previous season as players bundled themselves in turtlenecks and rain suits.
Through the first nine holes Caron and Bandea dropped from 4-under and 3-under respectively to be tied for the lead at even par. Caron’s front nine 40, and Bandea’s 39 were not shocking given the conditions. That Aho shot 45 after multiple three-putt greens was surprising, as the former Big Break Florida star was coming off a smooth 4-under par opening round.
Bandea, after misfortunate at the 8th hole when her second shot to the par five buried under the lip of a greenside bunker, could have gone the way of Aho if not for impressive composure and relentless determination. With little choice but to take an unplayable lie in the bunker, Bandea produced a 6 on a hole she expected to birdie.
“It was a tough break,” said Bandea, “it wasn’t really that bad of a shot. It was just about pin high and only about 20 feet left of the flag. If it lands one inch to the right and takes any kind of bounce I’ve got an eagle putt. But those are the breaks. I know it’s a cliché but I really, really try to just play one shot at a time. So I couldn’t let it bother me.”
After the debacle at the 8th, Bandea orchestrated a spectacular run over the next seven holes. She narrowly missed birdie at the difficult 9th then dropped an eight footer at the 10th after a brilliant approach to the 368 yard par 4. With that birdie, Bandea led for the first time in the championship, by one over Caron.
Caron responded with her own brand of brilliance, rifling her second shot to ten feet on the par 5 11th. Bandea also reached in two, but left herself in an impossible location far above the hole on the treacherously sloped surface. The inevitable three-putt for par gave Caron a chance for a two-shot swing, but her eagle attempt missed by the narrowest of margins and she settled for a tap-in birdie and once more, a share of the lead.
At the 12th, also a par 5, Caron again struck a pair of beautiful shots to reach the green in two. From forty feet this time, her eagle attempt grazed the lip to yield another tap-in birdie. Bandea then, from the back apron thirty feet away, drained her birdie putt to match Caron’s effort.
After solid pars from both on the 13th, Bandea and Caron each executed exceptional wedges to the short par 4 14th. With the hole located in the front of the severely sloped green, both faced downhill sliders about five feet in length. First Bandea, then Caron from a slightly different angle gently touched their putters to their golf balls to start the agonizing trickle toward the hole. Both found the center and continued to share a lead they had now stretched to minus-three and well clear of the rest of the field.
With a good chip after a mediocre second shot, Caron worked hard to save par at the 15th while Bandea continued her brilliant stretch with a made ten-footer for her fourth birdie over the first six holes of the back nine.
It had been an incredible stretch of holes where Bandea and Caron combined for seven birdies and shaved four and three strokes respectively from par. For the spectators who had the privilege of witnessing the inspiring display of professional shot making, the stretch was a warm respite from the bone chilling wind that marked the day.
Much the way they started, perhaps again succumbing to the elements, the players struggled to reach the clubhouse and the official scorer’s table. Bandea bogeyed 16 and 17, and Caron bogeyed 18. That left them tied at 142, 2-under par, and in the ensuing sudden death playoff that began with a return to the 18th tee, both halved with bogeys and then halved the second playoff hole (the par 4 10th) with pars.
Bandea’s quest for her first Connecticut Open title, and Caron’s bid for her fifth came to resolution at the third playoff hole, the par 4, 17th. Bandea’s perfectly struck nine iron came to rest ten feet from the hole. With Caron unable to match the play, Bandea rolled in her birdie to claim the 16th playing of the championship.
Bandea’s father served as her caddy over the 36 hole test. Shortly after his daughter won her second tournament as a professional (she won the Maryland Open in 2011), he remarked, “We learned a lot from Liz Caron today. How to play certain shots, how to compete, how to conduct yourself. Valuable lessons and a great experience.” The $5,000 first place prize money will help as well. Bandea is headed next to Canada to compete on the Canadian Women’s Tour.
Liz Caron meanwhile, returns to the life she loves. “I’m already looking forward to giving a lesson and helping someone else with their game,” said Caron. “I still love the competition but my husband Jason and I have a wonderful little life and I’ll be very happy to be back to it tomorrow.”