Don’t call it the off-season. It’s been a very productive winter for players with a Connecticut connection—male and female—with two victories, several high finishes, and a rare Monday qualifying for a PGA Tour stop.
Leading the way has been Frank Bensel, three-time Connecticut Open Champion, who won February’s 54-hole PGA Stroke Play Championship in Port St. Lucie, Fla., this week in a playoff over David Muttit. Bensel came from two behind in the final round, then matched Muttit’s birdie on the first playoff hole and won on the third. Now at Westchester’s Century Club, Bensel lost in a playoff to PGA Tour veteran Omar Uresti in the 50-54 division of the PGA Senior Stroke Play Championship a month ago, after shooting 62 in the second round of the 54-hole event. “I’ve shot a 61 or 62 before, but never in competition,” said Bensel, who is 50. David Dell of the Connecticut Section PGA finished T8 in the 55-59 division.
Peter Ballo of Silvermine Golf Club in Norwalk won PGA Winter Series event No. 6 in December and then, with partner Mike Martin of Tashua Knolls, finished runner-up in the PGA Senior-Junior Team Championship in January. Ballo, who played at St. John’s, defeated Rod Perry on the second hole of a playoff in December to win his individual event, and with Martin shot 262 (-26) over 72 holes, just two back of winners Craig Bowden and Brett Melton in the Senior-Junior.
Recent Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame inductee John Paesani and partner Frank Dully finished fourth in the PGA’s Four-Ball Stableford Championship in February. CC New Canaan professional and 2016 Connecticut Open Champion Adam Rainaud and partner Scott Berliner of New York were fifth. Bensel and Anthony Aruta were T20.
David Pastore, a teammate (with Kevin Josephson) of Ballo’s on the 2014 Connecticut team that finished 8th at the USGA Men’s State Team Championship in French Lick, Ind., Monday-qualified for the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in late January. Although he missed the cut at +2 after 36, he scored better than the likes of Jimmy Walker, J.B. Holmes and Kyle Stanley. Pastore, who has played recently and won on the Mackenzie Tour in Canada, and John VanDerLaan, the 2018 Connecticut Open Champion, reached the finals of Web.com Tour qualifying in December. Though they finished outside the top 40 that would assure a spot on the Web.com tour, Pastore was 9-under over four rounds in Arizona, VanDerLaan 7-under. Former Connecticut professional Eric Steger was -12, but also out of the top 40.
In October former UCONN star Zach Zaback of Farmington won his fourth event in two years on the Minor League Golf Tour in Florida and captured a 3-tournament “bonus pool” by a whopping 10 shots. He finished T2 in the St. Lucie Trail Thanksgiving Classic in November, part of the MLGT. Chris Wiatr of Woodbury won the MLGT's tour championship and $10,000 in December. Zaback, along with Waterbury’s Blake Morris, Wiatr, Eric Dietrich of Cheshire and Brian Carlson of Madison, all finished in the top ten of the Minor League Golf Tour’s event at the Country Club of Coral Springs, Fla.
On the women’s side, Innis Arden Professional Jessica Carafiello, the 2016 Connecticut Women’s Open Champion and three-time Metropolitan PGA Women’s Player of the Year, finished third at this week’s PGA Women’s Stroke Play, three shots behind winner Joanna Coe. Stanwich’s Michelle Winkler was 8th, PGA President and PGA Connecticut Section professional Suzy Whaley was T11.
In November Carafiello finished T26 in the 42nd National Car Rental Assistant PGA Professionals Championship—the only female in the 132-player field. Her performance coincided with her being named (again) to the list of Golf Digest’s Best Young Teachers. In the February issue of the magazine, Carafiello authored an instruction story on ball striking, at which she seems to be excelling this winter.
Finally, Sarah Burnham, 2018 Connecticut Women’s Open Champion and former Michigan State University star from Minnesota, in December gained LPGA status, finishing 27th of 48 qualifiers in the grueling, 8-round, inaugural LPGA Q-Series tournament.
A productive winter by any measure.