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Comebacks, Playoffs & High Seeds Propel Travis Invitational Into Championship Sunday
Dawn broke clear and warm over Long Island, but though the sun shone jubilantly on The Grand Old Club and The Grand Old Amateur, the number one seeds in the Travis Invitational found themselves wishing the rain the rain would have returned. Over the six flights of competition, five number one seeds were eliminated in the first round as the tournament moved into match play for the weekend.
The bloodletting began at the top as the championship flight’s 16th seed, David Segot, dispatched number one seed and stroke play medalist Alan Specht 3&2. “Our match was actually a pillow fight,” Segot quipped impishly. “There were a lot of three putts and bogeys,” he explained. Segot built an early lead, winning the difficult par-4 fifth and sixth holes, (both played into the teeth of a fierce wind), then held on, closing out the match on the par-4 sixteenth with his only birdie of the day.
Segot, who proudly calls Bethpage Black his home course, then defeated 2003 United States Mid-Amateur champion Nathan Smith 3&2 to advance to tomorrow’s semi-final at fabled Garden City Golf Club. Segot took control of the match on the front nine, winning the eighth hole with a par and the short par-4 ninth with a kick-in birdie. He hit 5-wood off the tee, then 54-degree wedge to one foot. The 54-degree wedge proved valuable again two holes later when he chipped in for birdie on eleven. “I almost putted, and now I’m glad I didn’t,” he said, as a relieved expression flashed across his face. “I feel really fortunate to have gotten past Nathan. He’s a great golfer and was a great mid-amateur champion. He really made me work hard.”
Segot may have felt pressure, having to defeat the stroke play medalist and a U.S.G.A. champion is a tall order, but he did what all great golfers do in the clutch – over the two rounds he hit twenty-six out of thirty-two greens in regulation. “The fairways at Garden City are generous, but if you miss then, you have no chance. The rough is thick. Then, you have to hit the greens. When you hit fairways and greens, good things can happen.” Segot will face Huntington Country Club’s Joe Saladino in one championship flight semi-final.
Segot was not the only bottom seed to reach the semi-finals of his flight. In the second flight – named for course architect Devereux Emmet – Edward “Scissorhands” Gibstein defeated the flight’s top seed Jack Eisenbeis 4&3 in the morning, then defeated British ex-pat and Texarkana, Arkansas native Michael Wharton-Palmer 4&3 in the afternoon to reach the semi-finals of the second flight. “Ed played great all day” said the affable Wharton-Palmer with his trademark good sportsmanship. “He took the early lead and never looked back. I played well, but he outplayed me and he deserved to win.”
Gibstien, a colorful and engaging fellow in his own right, earned the nickname “Scissorhands” after his tree-removal campaign at his home course, Long Island’s Engineers G.C., improved the course tremendously.
Three other flights saw the top seeds felled in the first round like mighty redwoods succumbing to a burly lunberjack. In the fourth flight, Joe Taylor, Jr. defeated Albert Oh 4&2, in the fifth flight Ken Weixal defeated Casey Alexander 3&2, and in the senior division Gerard Gerber defeated Marshall Gleason 1 up. The only top seed to survive was the third flight’s Austin Eaton, who defeated Sean Hartman 3&2.
“In a tournament like this, being the top seed is not anywhere near as much of an advantage as it is in other sports like basketball” explained Garden City golf pro emeritus Gil McNally. “The field is so strong from top to bottom, that the difference in ability between a top seed and a bottom seed can be negligible. Moreover, the stroke play portion of the competition is only one round, where anything can and will happen.”
McNally is right. Additionally, while the field can be jumbled by the casual slings and arrows of the capricious bounces of a single round, the match play portion is an equalizer, giving the more skilled player a chance to overcome a high seeding and work through the brackets. Interestingly, since 1980 only two men have claimed medalist honors in the stroke play round and captured the overall title as well. Last year, Greg Kennedy was the low medalist and then marched through the bracket to victory. Legendary amateur David Egan turned the trick an astounding three consecutive times, from 1999-2001. Egan won a total of four Walter J. Travis Invitationals.
Tenacious comebacks were the other story of the day as several semi-finalists overcame large deficits to surge to unlikely victories. In the championship flight diminutive Mike Kelley – five foot five and a half in metal spikes, five-five in soft-spikes – played much taller, defeating Rob Shawger 1 up in the morning, then survived a ghastly gaffe in a playoff to edge Pine Valley’s Michael McDermott on the twentieth hole.
“The morning match was wild,” Kelley recalled. “We didn’t tie many holes.” Though he and Shawger were tied standing on the ninth tee, they didn’t tie a single hole to that point. “The match actually swung Rob’s way as the back nine started” Kelley said. “I won twelve when I made birdie with a three-iron hybrid and a fifteen foot putt, but then I missed two short putts at thirteen and fourteen.”
While other players tried to stay phlegmatic when things go wrong, Kelley kicked himself in the pants. “I was really upset at myself. There’s nothing that makes me more mad on the golf course than missing those shorties” he said, pursing his lips like an angry schoolmarm. “The first was four feet and the next was two. I was quickly losing confidence.”
Kelley got a break on fifteen when Shawger fell victim to the green’s wicked left to right tilt. “I won the hole with a par. Rob was above the hole, only fifteen feet away, but the green’s tilt is so much, he hit a good putt, but went fifteen feet by the other way. It just was unstoppable.” They halved the sixteenth with inglorious bogeys, then Kelley won seventeen with a par after Shawger hit his approach left of the green into some of the deepest rough. A nerve-racking par on the home hole cinched the match. “I knew I didn’t want to put it in Travis’s bunker, so I almost blew it over the green onto the patio but it stayed on the back of the green.” After nearly leaving the match in someone’s bowl of Tony the club chef’s outstanding vichyssoise, he two-putted for the win.
Standing next to Michael McDermott, his afternoon opponent, the pair looked eerily like the finalists in the 1908 U.S. Amateur, the tall Max Behr towering over eventual winner Jerome Travis. But although he gave away six inches to McDermott – who has the same exact name as Matt Damon’s character in the movie “Rounders” - Kelley overcame another large deficit to win. Despite being down three holes with eight to play, Kelley channeled enough intestinal fortitude, courage and discipline to make Jerome Travers proud and rallied for a stunning victory in twenty holes.
“I just kept chipping away” he said, his exhaustion surfacing as recalled the grueling match. “I won eleven and thirteen, but lost fourteen when I missed another shorty.” But Kelley won the mighty fifteenth and, after McDermott missed a three-footer on eighteen that would have won the match, the match went into sudden death.
The playoff holes are an interesting loop: the short par-4 first, followed by the dangerous par-3 second, a redan-style hole guarded by a bottomless pit, then the eighteenth, repeat as necessary. This playoff was downright zany. Both players took driver off the tee on one. Kelley drove through the fairway into a patch of thin rough thirty yards from the green. McDermott drove over the green and against a wooden fencepost. It was then that the golf gods made their presence felt, making fools of the players and testing their mettle to the utmost.
“My ball rolled into a bare lie, as bare as you could get” Kelley explained. “Also, I wasn’t comfortable with the yardage - forty yards is an awkward number for me. I didn’t have confidence in the shot and I didn’t commit to it.”
What happened next stunned the small circle of patrons and officials. Kelley chunked it; he duffed it into the deep greenside bunker. The shot couldn’t have traveled more than seven yards. Your ninety year-old Aunt Martha couldn’t have hit a worse shot. To his credit, Kelley bounced back. “I never gave up. Yeah, I hit a bad shot, but I let it go. I had just got a bunker shot like this up and down a minute ago on seventeen.”
Kelley’s calmness under fire paid off. McDermott was having issues of his own. Up against a post with no backswing to speak of, McDermott began rehearsing the shot off the ball. He practiced a sharp downward chopping motion two times, took his stance, and struck the ball just as he had rehearsed the shot.
The result was astounding. The ball leaped off the club perfectly, bounced on the green, spun a bit and then released gently, finishing seven feet from the hole. The gallery cheered him energetically.
Meanwhile, Kelley was unfazed. “I spent a lot of time practicing long bunker shots recently. I needed to improve that part of my game and the practice paid off.” Kelley hit it to five feet and when McDermott’s putt to win missed, Kelley calmly rolled his in to extend the playoff. He then made a twenty-footer on two for birdie to win the match. Kelley will face Kevin Hammer in the semi-finals. A relieved Kelley then spoke humbly about how much it would mean to him to win the tournament named in The Grand Old Man, Walter Travis’s honor. “Garden City is a special place: the history, the quality of the course and the membership, it’s clearly one of the top events in the country and to win a world class event on a world class golf course is why I play golf.”
There were other dramatic comebacks as well. Wharton-Palmer was two down in his match, yet won with a birdie on the home hole. So did Andrew Giuliani, and Tim Kane, both of whom are in the semis of the second flight. That’s one of the great virtues of Garden City G.C.: she only rewards one type of golfer, a smart and patient one.
Tomorrow is championship Sunday, the day every golfer dreams about from childhood. Dramatic putts, sparkling iron shots, hair-raising recoveries from impossible lies, and sweet, sweet victory - years of hard work have all come down to this chance. All those long, cold, lonely days on the range, all those practice balls, all those bitter defeats of the past, they will all fade to memory if they can outlast the others. That’s the dream: to walk in Travis’s footsteps, to join the ghosts of legends past who are the soul of Garden City Golf Club - the Grand Old Club - to thrill the gallery as they rise from their rocking chairs on the veranda and salute the champion in all his glory, the cheer swelling, hitting a crescendo, and then echoing through the centuries joining ninety-seven other years of cheers and memories.
For an athlete to consider himself a true champion he must do two things: charge dramatically to a come from behind victory, and defeat an opponent he was not supposed to beat. Several players have that rare opportunity. A sixteen seed meets a four, (Segot vs. Saladino), a two meets a six, (Hammer vs. Kelley), but there is a greater opponent. The weight of Garden City’s and the Travis’s incomparable history is both staggering and inspiring. Walter Travis, Garden City G.C., the Travis Invitational – The Grand Old Man, The Grand Old Club, The Grand Old Amateur: it’s enough to make you duff a mundane forty-yard pitch seven feet into a pot bunker, but it’s also enough to inspire a final crisp iron shot to the home hole, the ball soaring against the divine background of the hotel and clubhouse before clearing Travis’s coffin bunker and rolling gently, finally nestling next to the cup. It’s the mettle to embrace all the turmoil, feed off it, and channel it that will define the winner. That’s the essence of The Grand Old Man, The Grand Old Club, and The Grand Old Amateur, and any winner who wishes to add his own name to the glory of Travis’s and Garden City will be so much more than just a tournament winner. He will walk in history forever.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.