HARTFORD, Conn. – Five players with Connecticut connections earned berths in next month’s PGA Championship in the PGA Professional Championship at the Wanamaker Course at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Hartford native and Central Connecticut State University grad Rob Labritz<, three-time Connecticut Open champion Frank Bensel, frequent State Open challenger Danny Balin, former Bridgeport resident Alex Beach and Peter Ballo of Stamford were among the 20 PGA professionals to advance to the PGA Championship on May 20-23 at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island (S.C.) Golf Resort.
Former PGA Tour player Omar Uresti entered the final round with a seven-stroke lead but went 4 over par in the first four holes and led by only two on the back nine. But the PGA Life Member from Austin, Texas, righted himself down the stretch, shot a closing 3-over 75 for a 72-hole total of 11-under 276 and three-stroke victory over Bensel.
“I had a pretty good lead and got off to a rough start, so there was a little frustration early,” said Uresti, who also won in 2017. “I just tried to grind it out. I didn’t putt like I did the first three days, but I was able to hang in there and make some two-putts.”
Uresti, 52, became the second-oldest champion behind Hall of Famer Sam Snead, who was 59 when he won in 1971. The win earned Uresti a spot in the PGA Championship for the fifth time but first since a four-year run in 2015-18, a berth on the 2022 U.S. PGA Cup team and six PGA Tour exemptions over the next year. He has played in 377 career PGA Tour events.
Bensel started the final round 10 shots back of Uresti but charged into contention with four birdies on his first 10 holes while Uresti was struggling. Bensel’s birdie at the 16th hole moved him within two shots of the lead for the second time on the way to a 68, the second-lowest round of the day.
“We got to the sixth hole, and I saw Omar was 4-over and I was 3-under so I knew I had a chance,” said Bensel, a teaching pro at Century Country Club in Purchase, N.Y. “It’s tough to play with a big lead, so I just kept wanting to play well and keep making putts. I’m really happy with how I played.”
Beach, a former teaching pro at Westchester CC in Rye, N.Y., who is now in Stillwater, Minn., shot 70 to tie for sixth at 286 in defense of his title. He won the PGA Professional Championship and Assistant PGA Professional Championship in 2019. Balin shot 70, Ballo 72 and Labritz 75 to tie for eighth at 287. Balin and Bensel were both in the PGA Championship in 2012, when it was last played at the Ocean Course.
Labritz, of Pound Ridge (N.Y.) Golf Club, and Balin, of Rockville, Md., were the most experienced players to advance as eighth time participants. Balin will make his fourth consecutive appearance, while Labritz will appear in his third straight PGA Championship.
Ballo, an assistant pro at Silvermine GC in Norwalk, is a member of the Ballo family that will be recognized as the Metropolitan (N.Y.) Golf Writers Association Family of the Year for 2020 during the organization’s virtual national awards dinner Oct. 6. The dinner was canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic but will now originate from historic Winged Foot GC in Mamaroneck, N.Y., site of last year’s U.S. Open won by Bryson DeChambeau, who is among the early commitments to the Travelers Championship on June 24-27 at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell.
Mark Geddes of Coronado, Calif.; Greg Koch of Orlando, Fla.; Patrick Rada of Jupiter, Fla.; and PGA Life Member Sonny Skinner of Sylvester, Ga., claimed the final four PGA Championship spots in a five-man playoff. Ten of the 20 club pros at The Ocean Course in May will be making their championship debuts, while four others return for consecutive trips after playing in last year’s PGA Championship at Harding Park in San Francisco, Calif.