HARTFORD, Conn. – For six years, Connecticut State Golf Association executive director Mike Moraghan thought about playing the organization’s marquee event, the Connecticut Open, on the weekend.
“We broached the idea before the 2013 Open,” Moraghan said. “We mutually discussed the idea of having more people and showing off a club.”
Moraghan and his staff decided this would be the year that they would see how a weekend tournament would fare after strong support from Torrington Country Club officials, who were lauded for how well they hosted the event in 2013.
“Torrington (CC) did a wonderful job,” Moraghan said. “We didn’t strong-arm the club into having the tournament on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If they didn’t want it on a weekend, we wouldn’t have forced their hands. Part of the appeal for them in hosting our first weekend event is they wanted to show off the course, and we hope to draw more people. That’s appealing to us, and it was appealing to the club.”
Torrington CC pro Glenn Carlson concurred.
“The club has embraced the idea of playing on the weekend,” Carlson said. “It allows for possibly more spectators, and we expect that.”
Many club members came to watch the 54-hole event in 2013, when Jeff Curl blew a late lead but made an improbable 40-foot birdie putt on the first hole of a four-way playoff on the club’s severely slanted 18th green. Curl, son of former PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions player Rod Curl, had planned to play this year, but he withdrew Tuesday after hand surgery failed to heal in time for the tournament.
“2013 was really exciting, and everyone enjoyed the event,” Carlson said. “We got great reviews from the players and had a good turnout in the final round. We hope the community comes out and supports the event even more this time.”
The championship is usually played Monday through Wednesday at the end of July or beginning of August. Since this year’s tournament has been moved forward more than a week and is being played on a weekend, some of the top players haven’t entered because of conflicts, leading to fewer entries. The problem starts with club professionals who couldn’t give up the entire weekend to play.
“It is a problem for some club pros, but I told all of them if we could be of help for starting times on Friday and Saturday, we would do it,” Moraghan said. “There are always going to be conflicts, but I will look and see how club pros are impacted and the strength of their games. We tried to attract the best possible field and to be a good experience for the club.
“We want this to be a championship for championship players. It’s something of an experiment, something not every club will embrace and that’s fine. But we feel good about the quality of the field, and we want to make it the best possible championship that we can and hopefully have more fans.”
Besides the weekend dates, there are tournament conflicts such as the Norwich Invitational, the longest running amateur event in the state that has the same dates. And the New York State Open is Tuesday through Thursday at famed Bethpage Black on Long Island, so players would have to play six consecutive days if they made the cut in both events. Former champions Frank Bensel and Adam Rainaud compete in the Metropolitan (N.Y.) Section PGA, so they won’t be at Torrington CC.
Neither will defending champion John VanDerLaan, who will be playing in a Korn Ferry Tour event in Nebraska, and four-time winner Kyle Gallo, who has played only a few times since last year’s State Open and is now working for Wells Fargo Advisors Essex. He is also considering becoming a reinstated amateur.
Leading contenders in a still strong 150-man field include two-time champion and former PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions player Ken Green, who finished fourth in the Connecticut Senior Open on Tuesday while continuing to compete with a prothesis on the lower part of his right leg as the result of a horrific recreation vehicle accident in 2009 that killed his brother, girlfriend and dog; former PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour player Bobby Gage, who tied for fifth in the Connecticut Senior Open; C.J. Swift, a member of the PGA Tour Latinoamerica who finished second last year with a score (14 under par) that usually wins; past champions Jeff Evanier of Clinton CC, Jim Becker of Blue Fox GC in Avon, Mike Gilmore of Winged Foot GC in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and Cody Paladino of Farmington, who is in the process of regaining his amateur status; 2019 Connecticut Section PGA Player of the Year Chris Tallman of Cold Spring CC in Holyoke, Mass.; Fran Marrello of Canaan CC, winner of a record 18 Section PGA major titles; three-time Massachusetts Open champion Jason Thresher of West Suffield; Mike Ballo Jr. of Stamford, the son of 1978 champion Mike Ballo and an assistant at Winged Foot GC, who tied for fourth in 2018; Max Theodorakis of Ridgewood CC in Danbury, the low amateur in 2018 who shared fourth overall; former UConn standout Chris Wiatr, who won the Vermont Open by five shots in June; Richard Dowling, winner of the State Amateur in June who teamed with Nick Taylor to capture the last two Two-Man Team Championships; Ben Day of the Country Club of Waterbury, a past Palmer Cup winner who played in the 2018 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship and this year’s U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship; Michael VanDerLaan, who won the NCAA Division II Championship in May and made the cut in last year’s State Open and then watched his brother John win; Kyle Bilodeau of Manchester CC; newcomer Alex Beach, the assistant pro at famed Baltusrol GC in Springfield, N.J., who is a two-time winner of the New Jersey Section PGA Championship; and Ben Conroy, one of the playoff participants in the 2013 Open as a pro who is now an amateur and was the 2018 CSGA Player of the Year who was second in the Palmer Cup in May and then tied for 18th in the prestigious Northeast Amateur at Wannamoisett CC in Rumford, R.I.
The last amateur champion was Jeff Hedden of Old Lyme in 2008 at the Round Hill Club in Greenwich, where his caddie was his wife, Nicole, a longtime standout on the Connecticut women’s golf scene. The couple has moved to North Carolina, but leading senior players this year include two-time CSGA Player of the Year and eight-time Senior Player of the Year Dave Szewczul, who has won every Connecticut major except the State Open; Mark Vasington, who won the Senior Match Play Championship on July 3; defending Senior Amateur Champion Ray Underwood, a Torrington member; and Bill Hermanson, who captured the 2015 Senior Match Play and Senior Amateur, which was played at Torrington CC.
“I’ve been lucky enough to win quite a few New England events,” said Thresher, who captured three consecutive Massachusetts Open titles in 2016-18. “But I would trade one of those Mass Opens for a win here, my State Open. That would mean so much to me.”
Conroy’s 65 in the final round of the 2013 Connecticut Open at Torrington set a competitive course record.
“There are certain spots where it’s just difficult to make par,” Conroy said. “If you don’t manage things strategically, you can hit good shots and wind up struggling to make par.”
No one wants to win more on the 90-year-old Orrin Smith-designed course than Gage, who grew up playing at Torrington CC and Green Woods CC in his native Winsted. The pros at the two courses were the Staszowski brothers, Frank and Stan.
“Torrington isn’t a place where you’re going to lose golf balls, but if you’re even par on the par-3s, you will be in the hunt,” said Gage, 54, the 2018 Connecticut Senior Open champion. “The (173-yard) third hole isn’t long, but you could put it on any golf course in the world. It’s as good a par-3 as there is anywhere. It’s a great hole.”
The other par-3s measure 177, 183 and 188 yards, but topography, prevailing winds and the depth of greens mean they will play considerably different from one another. The sixth is slightly uphill, and the green is pitched severely right to left. The 11th also plays uphill, while the 17th usually plays into the wind and where Curl made a double bogey in the final round in 2013.
Then there’s the often confounding greens on the 6,650-yard, par-72 layout.
“There are certain places around the greens that you simply can’t play from,” says Gage, who tied for 32nd in the 2016 U.S. Senior Open at famed Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, where Jack Nicklaus learned to play. “You have to be extremely smart around the greens, so it reminds me in that way of Scioto. You don’t think of it as a place where you make a lot of bogeys, but you can get into a string of them if you get yourself into the wrong spots. You’ve got to play the right angles.”
Gage also cited the uphill, par-4 seventh hole with its sloping, tiered and elevated green.
“That’s a green complex that will eat you alive, if you’re in the wrong place,” Gage said.
Given his respect for Torrington, which is hosting the championship for the fourth time, his experience and his recent strong play, Gage has to be considered among the favorites. And his first Connecticut Open title couldn’t come at a better place.
“If I’m finally going to win the Open, it would be great if it was at Torrington,” Gage said.
Play begins Friday at 7 a.m. off the eighth tee and at 7:30 a.m. on the first tee. The low 40 players and ties after the first two rounds qualify for the final 18 holes on Sunday. The total purse is $50,000, and the low pro will earn $12,500 and the low amateur will receive a to-be-determined amount of pro shop credit.
The 2020 State Open at Ridgewood CC in Danbury will return to the tournament’s normal dates of Monday through Wednesday. Moraghan said the only other club that has considered holding the event on a weekend is Shuttle Meadow CC in Kensington in 2023.
The championship is open free to the public, and parking will be available at the nearby Goshen Fairgrounds.