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Oh You Hans - some Devil! Albertsson Leads Trio of 69s Into Match Play Phase of Travis Invitational
To paraphrase the fight song of his beloved alma mater: "Deerfield! Thy son is marching into the weekend's match play phase of the Walter J. Travis Invitational with co-medalist honors, and though the odds maybe great, he'll fight for victory for you, loyal though win or lose." With a sparkling 4-under 69 Deerfield Academy and Wake Forest University's Hans Albertsson joined Nick Gilliam and Steve White at the top of a star-studded championship bracket as a rain softened Garden City Golf Club surrendered 16 sub-par rounds in the stroke play qualifier of the 101st playing of The Grand Old Amateur.
"I had a good ball striking day, and the week of rain let us be a lot more aggressive than normal," explained Albertsson. "You could fly the ball close to pin high and let it stop."
And that's exactly what he did all day long. It was splendid iron play and a hot start that powered Albertsson to his best opening round since he began playing the Travis in 2006. He had five birdies on the day - including three in a row at three, four, and five - yet never saw a birdie putt longer than seven feet. His lone blemish was a three-putt bogey from 40 feet at the par-4 eighth. He re-grouped with birdies on the fiendishly difficult par-4 10th and the par-5 13th, then parred in, basking in a resounding ovation from the ebullient Garden City members as he finished at what golf architect Tom Doak called, "the Greatest Eden hole in the World, and one of the best closing holes on Earth."
But in a testament to the universal respect and admiration the amateur golf world has for the humble Albertsson, his win was not only cheered here at Garden City, where he has been considered by the club as a valuable addition to the tournament as both a player and colleague in golf since his introduction to the tournament by the irrepressible Noel Volpe. His round was also celebrated half a world away, in China, where a small cadre of his friends and friends of the Travis are competing in the International Championship of Country Clubs.
"Wake up!" the message blared at 5:11 a.m. local time to a bleary eyed Eoghan O'Connell and Kevin Hammer, friends of Albertsson their junior golf days. "Hans is co-medalist!"
That woke them up with a thunderclap.
Congratulations poured in moments later, along with good natured ribbing. "Tell him to play that well when we're partners!" quipped O'Connell. Of course, Albertsson spent more time praising the course to the media rather than talking about himself.
"Ever since Noel brought me here, I've been inspired by the devotion the members have toward their wonderful history," a smiling Albertsson confirmed warmly. "The course is wonderful, but the camaraderie of the members and the way they preserve and promote their one-of-a-kind history is refreshing. I look forward to seeing them each year as I do playing in the tournament. It's a blessing."
He should know about blessings. Win or lose this weekend, he'll be experiencing one of life's greatest miracles shortly: his lovely wife Collin is eight months pregnant with their third child, a boy.
His late tee time yesterday also gave him an extra boost - he avoids the number one seed, which has been a graveyard for number one seeds not named David Eger. The last six number one seeds have lost in the first round of the match play phase of the tournament.
Instead, Albertsson landed the three seed, but that brings no consolation as his opponent will be 14th seeded Jon Marsico, a highly touted Travis rookie who fired a 1-under 72. The winner of that match faces the winner of the clash between 6th seeded Greg Stebbins and 11th seeded Joel Lulla, both of whom shot 2-under 71.
Lulla, a TV sports contractual consultant for the Big 12 conference off the golf course, was the 2009 runner up, (losing on the 18th hole to Chris Lange). He hit his first 11 greens in a row en route to a 3-under start, but then the difficult par-3 12th nearly derailed him.
"I hit a 24-degree hybrid into the left front bunker and it buried under the lip. I got it out, but three-putted from 30 feet for double," he explained shaking his head. "And from there I hit it so badly it was unbelievable, but I kept getting up and down." A lob wedge to two feet at 14 got him back to 2-under, and he scrambled into the house frantically from there, rolling in putts from Suffolk County and getting up and down from Queens to secure a spot in the 16-player championship bracket.
The number one seed this year goes to prize Travis rookie Nick Gilliam, a former Hooters Tour player who was recently re-instated as an amateur. He balanced five birdies and an eagle at the short par-5 17th against three bogeys. His round was so mercurial, he went six holes in a row without a par, playing the stretch of Nos. 8-13 birdie - birdie - bogey - birdie - bogey - birdie.
"That's one of the things I love about this course though," he observed candidly. "Rounds swing back and forth incredibly because each hole can be a birdie or a bogey. Take number one," he points out energetically. You can make three or five and the difference between the two is so small. You have to focus on every shot and concentrate only on the shot at hand."
He'll need all the focus he can muster as his quadrant of the draw looks like a Travis all-star team. He opens the match play phase against Ken Bakst, a 16 seed in number only. Not only is Bakst a well-decorated amateur and fierce competitor, but he also gave the golf world Friars Head Golf Club, the Coore and Crenshaw-designed masterpiece far out on Long Island.
The winner of that match faces an equally stiff challenge from whoever wins the 8-9 tussle between defending champion "Big Ben" Hayes and young Irish phenom Eoin O'Connor. Playing together, the pair each carded 2-under 71s.
"We got the Jay Flemma power boost," joked O'Connor. "We were both playing poorly until we ran into you out on the course. Then we started playing well," he finished, laughing.
While your author would love to take credit for being a walking, writing, golfing rabbit's foot to players who meet him mid-round, it was a late rally that propelled Hayes and O'Connor into the championship flight, not my incomparable mojo. (Kidding!! Kidding!!) Hayes birdied four of the last six and O'Connor birdied 14, 16, and 18, including a ridiculous 45-foot bomb at 18 that wound around the green's fiendish contours like a whirling dervish before diving into the cup, triggering a delirious ovation from the gallery. The pair then sat for their media center interview together, fervently praising each other and the club.
"It's such a thrill to return as defending champion because the members make this one of the greatest experiences in all of golf," exclaimed Hayes. "Their energy is so warm and welcoming. They know what they have here and they strive to make this tournament the best experience an amateur could have, and succeed."
He even took a moment to give his home club some love, for all their support. "I have to give credit to everyone at Whisper Rock, which is a terrific place to call home." He even praised several individuals, including our mutual friend and golf buddy Woody Shipley, who he called, "a great golfer and a super-great father."
Still, both the defending champ and the number one seed will have their work cut out for them if they want to advance. Although all four brackets are stacked with talented golfers, theirs is perhaps the toughest, the "Group of Death" as it's called in soccer referring to a group where at least one potential winner will be eliminated early.
"The entire 16-man bracket is a Group of Death!" observed Bakst, and he's right. With cunning Garden City able to rise up at any time and send a player spiraling into a tailspin, the match play is a grueling test of endurance. Experience will count as much as talent and patience more so.
That experience may play to the advantage of two players in particular: Engineer's Club's Ed "Scissorhands" Gibstein and Garden City member Mark Thompson. Both shot 2-under 71s, claiming the fifth and seventh seeds, respectively.
Scissorhands, who earned his nickname by spearheading a much-needed tree-removal campaign at his home course, birdied the first three holes of the day, missing a hole-in-one at the short Redan-ish par-3 second hole by a whisker. "We watched it lip out," he recalled with a pained expression. "But I made the one inch tap-in."
The man who is also called "Gibby" by his friends played solidly until 14, when his swing flaw suddenly resurfaced.
"I've been working on swing changes and it's actually been slow going," he admitted candidly. "I've been flipping my wrists lately, but I had a terrific session on the range today, the best in ages, and I carried it out on the course for 13 holes. Then the flips came back, and I held on for dear life."
"Holding on for dear life" included some fireworks at 17, the short par-5 that the field needs to take advantage of to maintain pace in a tournament of this caliber. After hitting a goofy hook into the third fairway - "the best place to miss," as Scissorhands put it - he laid up with a 5-iron, then got up-and down for a birdie that gave him enough breathing room to enjoy the rest of the day's play without worry. He'll face 12th seed David Hayes, while 4th seeded Scott Osler faces 13th seed Kevin Gai.
Thompson also started with a sizzle, carding consecutive birdies at 4-5-6, leaving himself no more than seven feet for birdie. But Garden City bit back. After a three-putt from 40 feet at the par-5 7th left him at 2-under at the turn, a bogey at 10 and a double at 12 sandwiched a birdie at 11, he was treading water at even par.
"I just tried to remember that I made a lot of good swings all day and very few bad. So I said to myself, 'Don't worry, you're making lots of good swings and there's a lot more golf to be played. Just think about the target on the next shot and the crazy stuff won't sway you.' "
Great advice. Too bad his swing didn't listen. His next shot - his drive on the reachable par-5 13th - was an ugly duck hook left into the deep rough. He could only chip sideways back to the fairway, 260 yards from a green guarded by some of the deepest bunkers on the course.
"So I bashed a 3-wood onto the green and saved par," he remarked evenly, like it was nothing at all. Just another day at Garden City.
He negotiated one last misadventure, a bogey at 15 after, "driving into the little pot bunker that isn't even big enough to fit one angry man and his ball," he grumbled. Now one over, he gave himself one last pep talk. "I knew 16 and 17 are birdie holes so I set that as my goal." He surpassed it, making birdie 16, then eagle at 17 in a display of textbook course management and execution.
Now Thompson will try to become this year's Jed Raynor, the member who made a valiant run to the semi-finals in last year's 100th anniversary. No active Garden City member has won since Billy Edwards in 1970, although Tim Schmitt won in 2004, then became a member afterwards. Thompson will face 10th seed Dan Russo, while 2nd seed Steve White locks horns with 15th seed Hal Berman.
The day saw one more bit of eye-popping drama: the horrible, yet mesmerizing self-immolation of Garden City member, bon vivant, and all-around great guy Billy Kreitsek. I don't know how he offended them, but he did something that made all the Furies of the Golf Gods come riding down on his head on their Steeds of Vengeance. Othello and Hamlet have nothing Billy. Out of contention for the championship flight, but still well within the cut-off to play the weekend, Billy came to the 18th looking to give the large gallery of members and friends a thrill.
What they got was a massacre.
Billy has been fighting a swing flaw too - a much deadlier one than Scissorhands faces.
"I've been taking the club way too far inside and fighting the ____."
You know what word he used there. The dreaded "s-word." Rhymes with rank. "I proceeded to hit four hosel rockets into the water or into John Garcia's backyard," he moaned miserably. "I had already lost two balls, so I was down to my last one."
And here's where the Golf Gods turn the Steeds of Vengeance around and come rumbling back for another pass, shouting, "Get him again! He's still kicking!"
"I sh____ed another one which hit a tree and came back in play, landing a whopping 15 foot off the tee box. But I was blocked out by a tree, and all I could do was hit sideways back onto the tee box," he lamented. "I hit that at least, but then I took out wedge and hit a sixth hosel rocket right into the pond. I would have been lying 10 hitting 11, but I was out of balls…in front of everyone, the whole place watching. It was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened in my golf life. I stared with seven balls and lost five on 18, a par 3!"
Still the unsinkable Kreitsek rallied and fervently cheered everyone else home, displaying the trademark selflessness and unquenchable good cheer of everyone at Garden City. He was right there on the patio minutes later, one of Bob the Bartender's world-class Dark and Stormys in hand, roundly applauding the other players as they came up 18, and trading stories with them after they finish. Look on the bright side, though. Now Billy is timeless. We'll always have that tale to tell.
And so the sun went down over the stately Garden City hotel, and the sky deepened to a rich velvety purple, and the stars winked down one by one to shine a little light on Garden City, as though Heaven itself wanted to tip its hat to their warm glow. Soon we'll all return back to our lives - lawyers, money managers, accountants, husbands, dads, family - but for just a few more blessed days, we'll have each other, and together we'll drink deeply from the Well of Life in a far greener country.
(1) Nick Gilliam vs. (16) Ken Bakst
(8) Ben Hayes vs. (9) Eoin O'Connor
(4) Scott Osler vs. (13) Kevin Gai
(5) Ed "Scissorhands" Gibstein vs. (12) David Hayes
(2) Steve White vs. (15) Hal Berman
(7) Mark Thompson vs. (10) Dan Russo
(3) Hans Albertsson vs. (14) Jon Marsico
(6) Greg Stebbins vs. (11) Joel Lulla
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.