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Nick of Time - Late Heroics Propel Gilliam to 101st Travis Championship at Garden City
With more hair-raising, last-second escapes than a James Bond double-feature, Florida's Nick Gilliam won the 101st Travis Invitational at fabled Garden City Golf Club, defeating Kevin Gai 3 and 2 after trailing well into the back nine, then turning the tables on Steve White by winning the final two holes en route to a 1-up victory. The win was the former Florida Gator star's first since recently being re-instated as an amateur after an eight-year run on the Hooters Tour.
He also became the second consecutive Travis rookie to win the title and broke a string of three-straight medalists who lost in the match play. Greg Kennedy won the 2007 Travis Invitational after also taking home medalist honors.
Talk about a summer blockbuster! Just as every time Blofeld or Mr. Big or Dr. No left Bond to die by alligators, laser beams, or man eating sharks, so too did Eoin O'Connor, Gai and White have Gilliam one mistake away from elimination. Yet handling his golf clubs like they were gadgets from Q, Gilliam did his best 007 imitation, engineering one magical resurrection after another.
(Insert clipped British voice of Desmond Llewellyn: "Now pay attention everyone. This 215-yard 4-iron out of the wet, heavy rough will carry that water hazard, arc gently to the left, catch the basin in the green and trickle next to the pin, before self-destructing and leaving nothing behind but a refreshing pine scent.")
Actually Gilliam's escapes were better than that. He trailed the entire final. He never led until he seized the match on the 18th green. An early birdie by White and a bogey on seven by Gilliam put the Gator 2-down, but then White hooked a short-iron on eight and the lead dwindled back to one.
"Match play golf is a game of momentum. When you get to 2-up, you have to get to 3-up and then to 4-up. You never leave a guy hanging around," White observed. "And every time I put pressure on Nick, he responded."
But the plucky White ratcheted the pressure up again, this time with a birdie at 11 to build the lead back to 2-up. The advantage held until White drove it in the wrong fairway bunker on 14, a horrifying pit as narrow and deep as a barrel - "not even big enough for the proverbial angry man and his club," quipped one fellow competitor. He had to chip out sideways and the subsequent bogey whittled the lead back to 1-up.
They halved the mighty 15th with a pair of brilliant pars - scrambling from greenside at the fastest, most severely canted green on the course - then halved 16 with routine pars, setting the stage for Gilliam's late reversal.
White drove into the rough and mounds left of the 17th fairway and couldn't match Gilliam's two-putt birdie. With the match now tied, the 6'5" Gilliam hit the front of the green with 7-iron, but faced a difficult two-putt up hill to a back pin placement. White hit his tee shot much closer - perhaps 15 feet - but left of the pin and on the wrong side of a fold in the green. Gilliam made his two-putt, leaving the stage to White.
"I had to die it at the crest of the hill and let it trickle down, but I pulled it and hit it too hard," he recalled.
The putt zigged when he wanted it to zag. Instead of dying on the crest, it took a sharp left and followed the contours of the hill, veering away to a point about 12 feet from the hole. When White missed the come-backer, Gilliam was champion.
"It's such a thrill to come here and see all the history and the great character of the club," the gracious Giliam told the gallery after the round. "I fell in love with the golf course because every time I play it I have a different favorite hole, but I've fallen in love with the club because of the people. They all love golf, and everyone who loves golf can be grateful for Garden City."
The tall, slim, soft-spoken Gilliam proved a popular champion as well to competitors and members alike. Kevin Hammer, a regular on the amateur circuit and a fellow Gator, predicted pre-tournament that Gilliam would be a factor. Tournament chair Pat Fogerty was so equally impressed that he mentioned him as a rookie to keep a close eye on. And co-medalist Hans Albertsson cheered Gilliam's victory as well.
"I told him, 'What a great re-introduction to the amateur ranks,' " Albertsson said in a congratulatory message.
Gilliam's roller-coaster ride to the title highlights one of the great aspects of Garden City - how the fortunes of a match change from shot to shot. You can be in the cat bird's seat in the fairway, and with one misplayed shot, be at a crushing disadvantage greenside.
"Matches can swing two holes in one shot - you can go from a chance at 3-up to only 1-up with all you momentum gone, but that's why Garden City has stood the test of time," explained White.
"You have to be patient and play one shot at a time," agreed Gilliam. "You have to resist the temptation to be overly aggressive, moreso at Garden City. But that's one of the reasons this course has been so great for 111 years.
Of course the other reason is the people. Everyone, from head pro Bob Rittenger and his stalwart pro shop staff, to the rest of the club staff - the sturdy backbone of the club, Rene and Nelson in the locker room and Bob and Henry slingin' drinks and jokes . . . (Insert Bob's voice: "Where'd he go?! Did he fall in the bunker?!")
…to each and every open-hearted member who is only too happy to sacrifice the club for one week for a chance to meet some more great golf lovers. Get ready for another great 111 years and then some. They truly are the Grand Old Club and the tournament truly is the Grand Old Amateur.
And so as the sun sets and the train rumbles to take home to whatever our destination is, Garden City shimmers like a mirage before our eyes, gleaming with prismatic, iridescent light before disappearing into the mists to re-materialize like the reverie she is next spring, a rebirth in not only our golf lives but our hearts.
Meanwhile, Nick Gilliam will return home to a hero's welcome, a Schenectady Putter and Waterford crystal trophy in hand.
Remember "Live and Let Die"? It was one of Mr. Big's minions - a hook-armed thug named "Tee-Hee" - who told James Bond "There are two ways to disable an alligator. One is to take a pencil and jam it in the pressure hole behind its eyes. The second is twice as simple. You just stick your hand in its mouth and pull his teeth out," as he left him to die on an island full of the hungry reptiles.
Well this Gator sure proved hard to kill. So much so that he is a match for anyone, even for a guy with a license like James Bond.
News & Notes
Tall and slim, with short dark hair, Gilliam is a dead ringer for South African ex-pat Ross McIntosh, the affable and well-decorated amateur champion from Virginia.
"I like that nickname for him - 007! We'll have to hum the 'Theme from Dr. No' at him when we play him in matches now," joked one of Gilliam's golf buddies. Something tells me Nick's wife might like the nickname, too. Now she's a Bond girl!
Joe Saladino, last year's Metropolitan Golf Association Player of the Year, carded the always rare back-to-back eagles during Saturday's play. He eagled the par-5 fourth hole with driver, 4-iron from 210 yards and 7-foot putt. Then, after a 17-hybrid off the tee, he holed out a 48-degree wedge from 11 yards out.
"It was actually a little punch shot," he admitted. Saladino played that front nine in a dazzling 5-under 32, eliminating his opponent Adam Pecora 4 and 3.
Dan Goldstein and Ryan Chin couldn't get enough of Garden City, so they took their 1st flight title match to seven extra holes before Goldstein finally won with a birdie. They finished close to 45 minutes after the championship match had concluded. Goldstein, whose semifinal match against Jamie Slonis went all 18 holes, played a whopping 43 holes on Sunday.
(1) Nick Gilliam over (2) Steve White 1-up DEVEREUX EMMET CUP
(4) Dan Goldstein over (7) Ryan Chin in 25 holes
C.B. MACDONALD CUP
(5) Matt Meyer over (7) Jack Eisenbeis 6 and5
ROBERT TRENT JONES CUP
(1) Joe Saladino over (7) Pat Pierson 4 and 3
WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT CUP
(1) Jason Monroe over (7) Kirk Kashevaroff 4 and 3
SENIORS (D.D.E. CUP)
(12) Ron Vanelli over (15) Gerry Garber
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.