Wethersfield, Conn. – Joe Walker (Dennis Pines GC – MA) traveled more than three hours to get to Wethersfield Country Club, but he felt like he was home.
Following the first 18 holes of the 20th New England Senior Amateur Championship, the Bay State native who calls Dennis home fired a day-one score of 2-under par 69 to take a one-stroke lead over a field that features the top senior amateur competitors from the six New England states – Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.
Click here for full-field results from Round 1.
Walker – as well as the rest of the 120-person field – will return to Wethersfield on Wednesday for the second and final round to determine the 2017 champion.
“Things went well today,” said Walker. “It was one of those days when the marginal shots worked out, I played cleaned and I didn’t have any three putts. I had three sand saves out of three bunkers which were beautiful. The greens were beautiful and I just overall enjoyed the course.”
The race to the finish will be one to watch as a total of four strokes separate the top 14 competitors and sitting just one stroke back of Walker at T2 with scores of 1-under par 70 are defending champion Phil Pleat (Nashua Country Club – NH) and Mike Blair (Bretwood Golf Club – NH).
For Walker, whose best finish to date at this event was T9 in 2016, a victory is something that seems almost dreamlike at this stage of his career. His biggest victory to date was the Massachusetts Senior Amateur Championship, which he won in 2012.
“I really don’t dwell on the title, but it would be unbelievable,” said Walker. “Up until now winning the State Senior would be the highlight of my modest golf career. I am not nearly as talented as some of these other players. It’s stunning to watch the talent of these older gentlemen.”
On this day, Walker was steady and solid on a layout that caused angst for the majority of the field. Walker was one of only three competitors who was able to play under-par golf on Tuesday.
Walker began his day on the first tee at 9:00 a.m. and eased his way into the round by making seven straight pars. Despite his strong even-par play, Walker must have felt as if he was chasing during that front nine as he desperately tried to keep pace with his playing partner John McNeill (B.A.G.S. – MA), who made birdie on his first three holes and was 3-under par through eight holes.
And just when McNeil began to slow down (he finished the day at 2-over par 73), Walker was bested again on the 353-yard, par 4 7th hole by his other playing partner – Dean Parziale (Metacomet CC – RI) – who made an eagle 2 when his approach from the fairway rolled into the hole.
“Oddly enough on 1 I left it dead in the middle, on 2 I burned the edge and on three I thought that I had a hole in one and then had a three-foot downhill that gave me a horse shoe and [John] is making everything,” said Walker. “Finally on the 5th hole I said that if he made that putt that I was going to drive back to the Cape to get my bullseye putter because that is the type of putter he uses.”
McNeill did finally cool off and Parziale did not come through with any more eagles, which left the door open for Walker.
“I didn’t care too much,” said Walker about what he was witnessing on that front nine. “I was hitting a lot of good shots that just didn’t go in.”
Walker would make the turn at 1-under par and would get to 3-under through 17 holes after making birdie on the 14th and 17th holes. A bogey made on his finishing hole would drop him to 2-under par for the day, but when all scorecards had been turned in Walker’s name was still atop the leaderboard.
“I have admired so many of these guys for so many years,” said Walker. “I am very honored to even be playing with these guys. I have no expectations of winning or losing. I am just going to hit one shot at a time and be a man about the results.”
SUPER SENIOR DIVISION HIGHLIGHTS
In the battle for the super senior amateur division title – an honor reserved for those in the field who are 65 years and older – it was surging Jim Ruschioni (Wachusett CC – MA) who carded a 1-over par 72. He not only stands atop the Super Senior Amateur leaderboard but he is just three shots off the overall lead.
Trailing Ruschioni by two strokes in that division with a score of 3-over par 74 is super senior amateur rookie Jon Fasick (New England CC – MA), who turned 65 in August.
The last competitor to capture both the overall and super senior amateur title was Dave Houghton (Captains GC), who last week won the 2017 Massachusetts Super Senior Amateur Championship title at Wyantenuck Country Club. Houghton, who is now 73 years old, walked away with the two New England Golf trophies back in 2015.
Ruschioni, who will turn 70 years old in December, has enjoyed one of his best summers in recent memory. The 13-time MGA Championship winner finished second to Houghton at last week’s Massachusetts Super Senior Amateur Championship and also – just weeks earlier – became the oldest club champion in Wachusett Country Club history. He finished off that two-day club event by posting a score of 70 to win the club championship by three strokes.
In Wethersfield on Tuesday, Ruschioni began his round on the 10th hole and carded bogey on the 12th and 13th holes and was 2-over par through his first seven holes. He made his first birdie of the day on the 180-yard, par 3 17th hole, however, and played even par golf from that point on. He was even par on the course’s front nine with seven pars, one birdie (2nd hole) and one bogey (4th hole).
Although Ruschioni has yet to capture a New England Senior Amateur title, he did win the New England Amateur Championship in 1987 when he was 33 years old.
In addition to Houghton, the only other player in New England Golf history to capture two titles at this event was Shawn McLaughlin (Ridgewood Country Club – CT), who accomplished that feat in 2013. The super senior amateur division was first introduced in 2008.
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