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Top Seeds, Former Champion Reach 2012 Travis Invitational Semifinals
Another crystalline sky beamed down on Garden City Golf Club in New York as the top two seeds at the 102nd Walter J. Travis Invitational powered their way into the semifinals of the championship bracket with dominating performances. But their meeting in the final is far from certain as a former champion and a noted giant-killer stand in their way.
Top-seeded Ed "Scissorhands" Gibstein snipped and clipped his opposition into perfect origami figures, jumping out to 5-up leads after nine holes in both matches and then cruising to post 5 & 4 and 7 & 6 victories over North Fork's Scott Osler and Oakmont's Curt Coulter, respectively. Gibstein had earlier won his second qualifying round medal on Friday and, in doing so, tied a record of Walter Travis's - the longest span between first and last medals -that had stood for 96 years. Researchers are also checking to see if his 6-under 31 on the front nine might be another competitive record.
"This is so cool," Gibstein marveled. "To have this resurgence right now, and to find myself winning the Richardson and then coming here with a chance to win amidst all this history and these members of this club is amazing. This club and this tournament and all their history is what amateur golf all about. It's great to just come and be a part of it, but to have a chance to go out and become a part of it forever makes me want to go out there again right now. Put the tee in the ground - let's and go!" he concluded eagerly.
Indeed, the man they call "Scissorhands" for his dramatic but highly successful tree-clearing campaign at his home club of Engineers looks ready to go out and play with a rake, an Easter egg and a lantern and still win 2 & 1. He's flat-out dominated this tournament so far and is riding a hot streak he attributes to recent swing changes. "Flipperhands" might have been a more accurate nickname as his tendency to get too wristy was a swing flaw he battled last year. But now Gibstein has it under control and is firing on all cylinders.
"Between Jaime Hurless, one of the teaching pros at Glen Oaks, and some help from my buddy Robert Deruntz at Engineers, I've fixed it so I'm not so shut-faced on the backswing. I weakened my left-hand grip, which helps me rotate the club into a more neutral position," he explained.
Then Gibstein sat back and got thoughtful for a minute. "I think also with age and maturity I'm not putting as much pressure on my self to win or even play. I'm just having more fun with it."
Isn't that golf? You stop worrying about winning and suddenly you go on a hot streak. You can have all the skill you want, but golf is still a mental game.
As for Scissorhands, he says he's coming back for a sequel at Engineers. "I deserve my nickname, and the course needs more tree removal. We have spectacular topography at Engineers, and we can't and won't let that wonderful terrain and those gorgeous views be hidden by trees that have no architectural significance," he said firmly. "We cleared out a lot, and we're gonna clear out a lot more."
But Scissorhands' seemingly irresistible force will meet an unquestionably immovable object in 2010 Travis champion "Big Ben" Hayes, whose blend of gargantuan length and clinical precision won him the title in his first appearance in the Travis. Hayes won both his matches handily - 4 & 3 over 2006 Travis champion Eoghan O'Connell in the morning and Dan Russo by the same score in the afternoon.
Hayes's run this year looks eerily similar to his win in 2010. This year, as then, he is the No. 5 seed. "It's incredible, beyond all my expectations," the former Nationwide Tour contestant and University of Southern California star beamed as he held the replica Schenectady Putter and Waterford crystal trophy at the 2010 championship awards ceremony. "I'm thrilled and privileged to be a part of the prestigious history of this wonderful club and tournament. Every club should be like Garden City."
Now Hayes has a chance to enter more rarified air - that of a multiple winner of the Travis Invitational - a remarkably difficult feat, between having to battle one of the strongest fields in amateur golf and surviving five rounds of both medal and match play on a cunning and relentless Garden City Golf Club, where any hole can shatter your momentum.
It will be an epic matchup - mojo vs. metal - freewheeling, sweet-swinging Gibby, trying to surpass his 1998 run to the Travis Invitational finals, versus Big Ben, precise as a Soviet chess player and indomitable as the chiseled Trojan mascot of his alma mater, trying to win multiple titles. It will be a magnificent spectacle.
The other semifinal match-up is equally mesmerizing. Second-seeded Joe Saladino, one of the Metropolitan Golf Association's most decorated champions, will face 14th seed T.J. Brudzinski, who knocked out 2008 Travis champion Mike Kelley in his afternoon match.
The runner-up in 2008, Saladino said that year that he wanted "a win, a win, and a yes," meaning he wanted to win the semifinal and final and then get his girlfriend to accept his marriage proposal. He came up one short, but he got two out of three, as he's now an ecstatically happy married man.
"She's the greatest. I still won that day in the biggest way!" Saladino exclaimed. "And we also got married on Travis weekend, so it's our anniversary, too. We think it's great that such a wonderful tournament as the Travis and a place like Garden City also helps us remember the greatest days of our entire lives."
This year Saladino has a new mantra. "This time, it's a win, a win and a drink - a victory drink from the Cup!"
That would make for a nice anniversary present. But it will be a long haul over 36 holes before anyone will claim the Waterford crystal trophy and replica Schenectady putter used by Travis to win the 1904 British Amateur. And although Saladino's record in match-play events since 2010 is an eye-popping 25-1, Garden City Golf Club is a great equalizer. Fortunes swing from shot to shot and no lead is safe.
Indeed, Saladino nearly lost a gargantuan lead in his afternoon match, but the 11th hole proved the turning point. "I got out to a 4-up lead after four, but it dwindled down to 1-up after 10," he explained. "But a birdie on 11 got the momentum back for me, and momentum is everything on this golf course."
He's right. And once you get it, you have to keep it. But therein lies the difficulty as Garden City shows you so many different lengths - short one minute, long the next, so many changing wind directions, and is so exacting around the greens, even golf's greatest amateur players will be forced to grind for 18 holes.
"Guys are making bogeys out there with wedges in their hands," admitted Gibstein, who did that twice in row yesterday on 10 and 11 of his afternoon match.
Saladino righted the ship and defeated 10th seed Dan Goldstein 3 & 2. He beat James Buckley 4 & 3 in the morning. Saladino will face Brudzinski, who defeated his doubles partner and 2008 champion Mike Kelley 1-up in the afternoon, zooming past Kelley in a stunning reversal. One-down with three to play, Brudzinski birdied the last three holes, holing putts from Southampton, Mamaroneck and Bayonne in the process.
"They were bombs," admitted a gracious Kelley. "That one on 16 was at least 40 feet and the 20-footer on 18 was a double-breaker."
Indeed, the ball wandered around like a confused tourist, meandering over the myriad humps and rolls of the Eden hole's green, before tumbling into the cup and setting off a massive ovation from the grandstand and veranda to close the day's play.
"Anything can happen in match play, and never give up at Garden City!" gushed an elated Brudzinski, who is on his deepest run in the tournament. He also defeated Dan Macdonald 4 & 3 in the morning. "You get an extra boost because this event is so special. It's the crème de la crème of amateur events. So many great players have walked here - if these walls could talk!" he explained energetically. "So you just get inspired by everything and everybody, so you want to play well. The members and the history make you want it so much more."
"To be in the conversation with the name Walter Travis means you've done something really special in golf," agreed Saladino. "When you become champion here, it's a life event. You take it to the grave. It's an honor every golfer would cherish. Actually, in a way, you take it past the grave, because the members keep you alive forever. That's why Garden City is so special."
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://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 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine 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.