HARTFORD, Conn. – Dave Szewczul has been a leading amateur for as long as any player in Connecticut golf annals and added to his legacy again in the Connecticut State Golf Association Senior Match Play Championship.
In fact, it was difficult to know whether to call him Harry Houdini or The Comeback Kid after his stirring escapes in the semifinals and final at Innis Arden Golf Course in Greenwich.
The ninth-seeded Szewczul twice rallied from 2-down deficits to pull out wins that earned him a record 10th CSGA Senior Player of the Year title in the 12 years that he has been eligible and the inaugural Super Senior POY for players 65 and over. Szewczul, who is in his first year at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell after decades at Tunxis Plantation Country Club in Farmington, won the 10th, 12th, 13th, 15th and 18th holes, four with birdies including at the end, to overtake No. 7 Mark Vassalotti (Sterling Farms GC-Stamford) 2 up in the title match.
Earlier in the day, Szewczul, 66, advanced to the final when he won the ninth, 10th, 12th, 14th and 15th holes to rally from 2-down after eight holes for a 3-and-2 victory over 12th-seeded and 2018 champion Patrick McGuiness (Keney GC-Hartford). Vassalotti had reached the title match with a 2-and-1 victory over No. 6 Paul Fitzsimmons (Brooklawn CC-Fairfield).
“It’s really unbelievable, but I’m never going to let up,” Szewczul said of his memorable comebacks that produced his fifth Senior Match Play victory. “The wind was blowing 20 miles per hour at times, causing me to miss a few three-foot putts, but I have confidence in my ability to hang in there and trust myself to finish it off.
“I guess all those years of competing helps in situations like that. You really have to believe in yourself and your ability. Trust yourself. As long as you have holes to play, you’re in the match, so I told myself anything can happen.”
Those sentiments epitomize what Szewczul has accomplished since numerous surgeries threatened his career.
“I thank God every day,” he said. “I felt a bit rusty this year partly because it was hard to get into a rhythm with the COVID situation. Physically I was fine, but the competitive side wasn’t quite there. But to be able to play again is a small miracle, and to be competitive is something I hoped and prayed for but didn’t know if that was wishful thinking.
“Someone upstairs is looking after me. Last year, I wasn’t worrying about playing again, just having a good quality of life. Now I’m happy because it feels like I’m back.”
Szewczul overtook Richard Stevens (eClub of Connecticut) to earn the Senior POY title, defeating him in the first round with a par on the first playoff hole.
“There were five guys who had a chance to win Player of the Year, so winning the title was in my own hands,” Szewczul said. “I had the toughest draw and was fortunate to pull it off.”
Szewczul now has won 15 CSGA titles in five different events, including the inaugural Super Senior Championship on July 20, when he shot a 1-under-par 68 to beat CSGA executive director Mike Moraghan by two strokes at Longshore GC in Westport. A two-time CSGA Player of the Year has also captured the Public Links Championship (four times), Connecticut Senior Amateur (three) and Mid-Amateur (two).
Szewczul also made history by earning the inaugural CSGA Super Senior title and won a second New England Super Senior title in the two years that he has been eligible thanks to victories in the CSGA Super Senior and Senior Tournament of Champions and New England Super Senior Championship. He also helped the CSGA team notch its third consecutive victory over the Connecticut Section PGA in a record 45th appearance in the 49th Julius Boros Challenge Cup Matches.
Szewczul was right on calling his latest successes “a small miracle.” From the fall of 2017 through 2018, he underwent back surgery, a laminectomy that failed to achieve desired results, back fusion surgery, right hip replacement, cataract surgery and the processing of a few kidney stones.
“After all those surgeries and hours and hours of rehab, you sometimes wonder if all those competitive days are behind you,” said Szewczul, who began playing golf at 13 at Stanley GC in his native New Britain. “My family (wife Lisa and son Dave Jr.) was behind me 100 percent and pushed me and motivated me to make it back, back to just a normal life, not just golf. They often changed their schedules to accommodate me, and it’s very gratifying to say it worked. I really feel blessed.”
Blessed indeed. In 2018, Szewczul was “in a walker,” needing help to get dressed and to a doctor’s appointment. Despite constant pain, Szewczul was an inspiration to his competitors, starting with helping the CSGA win the Challenge Cup Matches, was co-medalist in the stroke play qualifying for the Senior Match Player Championship and tied for 25th in the Connecticut Open where he had to walk in temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees.
Szewczul also was the oldest player to reach the final day in the CSGA Mid-Amateur, where he finished 11th, tied for 15th in the CSGA Father-Son Championship with son David and tied for fourth in the New England Senior Amateur Championship, sharing the “top Connecticut player” honors with Rick Malafronte. He then won the Super Senior Championship by a shot and finished second to longtime friend, frequent four-ball partner and fellow Hall of Famer Bill Hermanson in the Connecticut Senior Amateur Championship.
All of the injuries forced Szewczul to adjust his routine, tournament schedule and swing.
“It was a three-quarters year,” said Szewczul, the sales director for a packaging company who was inducted into the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame in 2010. “I played a three-quarter schedule and swung with about three-quarters power. And honestly, I played timid early on. I had to be careful.”
Szewczul changed his swing with help from longtime friend and former Central Connecticut State University teammate John Nowobilski, who retired last year after 42 years as a head pro, the last 35 at Tallwood CC in Hebron. The two met in 1966, won New Britain city junior championships and attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School, where Nowobilski’s father, Harry, was the golf coach.
Szewczul caddied for Nowobilski when John qualified for the 1970 Sammy Davis Jr.-Greater Hartford Open (now Travelers Championship) at Wethersfield CC, and Dave is the godfather of John’s son, Ryan.
“We played so much golf together that I knew his golf swing maybe better than he did,” Nowobilski said with a smile.
The two started working together biweekly when Nowobilski became the Tallwood pro in 1982, and the past year has been “a real team effort.”
“Seeing him during the spring of 2019 after fusion and hip replacement, I really didn’t know where to start,” Nowobilski said. “I called his therapist and showed him videos and was given permission to work him through some follow-through positions.”
The two had to be careful as they worked for more than three months on readjusting Szewczul’s posture, backswing and more rotation and use of his hands to release the club to ease strain on his back. In March under outdoor heaters and with Szewczul a little stronger, they worked on modified path and face positions, especially at impact.
“Sessions got “lovingly heated” at times, but that’s the respect we have for each other,” said Nowobilski, who has won numerous Connecticut Section PGA awards, including Teacher of the Year. “My coaching philosophy has always been to listen to a player’s feedback and talk it out, never forcing a change to anyone. Many times, changing an image or having Dave work the ball was all he needed.”
Their last two sessions were breakthrough moments as they changed Dave’s alignment of his shoulders (they were closed), moving his hands toward the target (they were behind the ball) and having him release the club with more lower body rotation.
“Dave did it with immense practice discipline,” Nowobilski said. “I was there as a second set of eyes, eyes that he trusts. I’m so proud of him. He worked so hard, and it paid off.”
Though he lost some power and distance, Szewczul is just happy to have gotten back into tournament mode.
“John helped a lot,” Szewczul said. “Obviously, things had to change because of the surgeries. With the back fusions and hip replacement, my turn and flexibility are limited, resulting in a loss of power and distance. We had to do a lot of revamping to compensate. It’s still a work in process with more adjustments to follow.”
Rigorous rehab is scheduled for next summer, but Szewczul is delighted things have gone as well as they have.
“At the beginning you wonder, ‘Can I do this?’ ” Szewczul said. “You’re doubtful, you’re skeptical. You know, I always appreciated life and valued every day, but now I really do.”