WEST HARTFORD, Conn. – Yes, there truly can be justice in the world.
A year ago, Brian Keiser won the Connecticut PGA Championship, an achievement that would have normally earned him a cherished spot in the Travelers Championship. But the PGA Tour had suspended the local exemption once it lost three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic that reduced playing opportunities for its members.
Keiser, the head pro at Longmeadow (Mass.) Country Club, was the victim of the Tour’s decision after winning at Wintonbury Hills Golf Course in Bloomfield and ran a two-day member-member instead of playing in Connecticut’s premier sporting event against many of the best golfers in the world. But the exemption was returned this year for the low PGA of America member from the Connecticut Section PGA, and Keiser will finally get to play TPC River Highlands in Cromwell on June 24-27 thanks to a two-stroke victory over William Street on Tuesday at wind-swept Wampanoag Country Club.
“In the great scheme of things, it’s small that I didn’t get the exemption last year, but this is pretty cool,” a smiling Keiser said after a hard-earned, 3-over-par 75 that gave him a 36-hole total of 1-under 143 and the $4,000 first prize in his first title defense. “I was fighting it all day and swinging too quick. I was out of sync, and when the winds blowing like it was (gusts to 25 mph), it’s tough to get back in sync.
“My rhythm and tempo were a lot better and most of my (approach) distances were on the number yesterday (in a 68). But when you’re trying to manufacture shots and you’re under the gun, it’s hard.”
Despite some trying times, Keiser became the first repeat winner since Kevin Giancola in 2010-11. He began the day with a four-stroke lead over two-time champion Fran Marrello (PGA Life Member) and offset an opening bogey with birdie putts of 6 and 3 feet on the fourth and seventh holes. But an errant drive at the difficult par-4 eighth, a tee shot into a bunker at the par-3 ninth and a three-putt led to his first three bogeys of the day that suddenly opened up the title chase.
Michael Jezierski of Raceway GC in Thompson, who began the day five strokes back, birdied the eighth and 11th holes to get to 1 under for the tournament and a stroke behind Keiser. But Jezierski then bogeyed three of the next four holes and parred Nos. 17 and 18 for 74 and a tie for third at 146 with Marrello (74).
Street, the pro at Whitney Farms GC in Monroe, made the biggest move of the day in the difficult conditions. After shooting even-par 36 on the front nine, he birdied the par-5 11th and 12th holes to get within two strokes of Keiser. But he could do no better than five pars and a bogey at the long par-3 13th hole to close with 71, the second-lowest round of the day to the 70 of Hartford Golf Club’s C.J. Konkowski, who finished fifth at 148.
Keiser started his latest victory in rather inauspicious fashion, as his first shot hit a tree and ricocheted out of bounds into the practice range and led to a double-bogey 6.
“It’s a little hard to focus for a while when something like that happens, but I knew I still had 35 more holes to play,” Keiser said.
Keiser quickly put the early misfortune aside as he birdied four of six holes through the middle of the front nine to turn in 2-under 34 and added four more birdies in a five-hole stretch starting at No. 11 in a back-nine 34 for a four-stroke lead over Marrello. It was only the second time in Keiser’s career that he had eight birdies in a round, which was three more than runner-up Marrello, and all of them came from 12 feet or less.
Marrello, 66, is a Connecticut Section and Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame member who has won a record 25 Section individual championships and is a 16-time Player and Senior Player of the Year who was recently honored for competing in his 44th Julius Boros Challenge Cup Matches against the Connecticut State Golf Association. He two-putted the par-5 sixth hole for birdie to move within three of the lead but then bogeyed No. 7 while Keiser was making a birdie and never got closer than three the rest of the way. On the back nine, he had eight pars and bogey at No. 18 for 74 that cost him a share of second with Street.
So how did Keiser celebrate? After several congratulations from his peers and photos with the trophy, Keiser headed back to Longmeadow CC to run the end of the weekly men’s night tournament on Tuesday.
“It’s called the ‘shadow tournament’ because the shadows are usually pretty long by the end,” Keiser said with one final smile.
Yes, some gritty play had produced some poetic justice and a rightful day to remember.
Keiser will be in a 156-man Travelers field that already includes early commitments from defending champion and No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson, No. 4 and reigning U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, No. 7 Brooks Koepka, who tied for second in the PGA Championship on Sunday, No. 8 Patrick Reed, No. 18 Paul Casey, former No. 1 Jason Day, 2012 titlist Marc Leishman, former U.S. Open and Olympic titlist Justin Rose and Bubba Watson, who will try to tie World Golf Hall of Famer Billy Casper for most tournament wins (four).
(PHOTO CREDIT – Lauren Rivard – CT PGA Section)