HAMDEN, Conn. – New Haven Country Club has a mighty special meaning to the VanDerLaan family of Southbury.
Twenty years ago, father John VanDerLaan and guest Jerry Pepe won a flight of the member-guest tournament at one of the best and most prestigious courses in Connecticut. VanDerlaan took his pro shop credit and invested in a set of U.S. Kids Golf clubs for his son, John.
“John started hitting plastic balls when he was 2, so I thought getting some regular clubs might be good,” the elder VanDerLaan said Wednesday as he and wife Maria again watched their son finish another step up the career ladder.
U.S. Kids Golf allows youngsters to swap for more advanced clubs as they grow, and the younger John has used them to catapult to a recent memorable trend.
Young John was back at New Haven CC after finishing in a tie for 31st in the PGA Tour’s Barbasol Championship. Buoyed by the confidence gained from knowing he could beat some of the top players in the world, VanDerLaan won the 2018 Connecticut Open putting together a record-shattering performance for a 54-hole total of 16-under-par 194 and a two-stroke victory over C.J. Swift, who also broke the previous three-day record but didn’t win.
“I had a really good week, and C.J. played really well, too, so it made for a good competition,” VanDerLaan, a graduate of Pomperaug High School in Southbury,. said after playing the final round in the final group with Swift and 2016 champion Adam Rinaud. “We were so close the entire way that you couldn’t let up for a single shot.
“It’s kind of ridiculous to get my first pro win here, on a course I really like, in front of the guys I grew up playing with. It’s really hard to put into words. It’s amazing. It’s pretty cool that this is where it all started and has special meaning to me. I probably didn’t hit it as well the final day as I did the first two days, but I made some good putts and some that I didn’t really expect to. Sometimes when it’s going to happen it’s going to happen.
“It was a lot of fun, and I’ve been playing some good golf for a while now and have taken advantage of it. It’s nice to see the hard work pay off. That’s the third start of my pro career, so it’s nice to get a win early on.”
VanDerLaan’s 194 total shattered the record 200 that former PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions player Ken Green shot in 1992 at Ridgewood Country Club in Danbury and matched by four-time champion Kyle Gallo in 2010 at the Country Club of Fairfield. VanDerLaan’s record included a second-round, 8-under 62 that included six birdies and an eagle 3, was a personal low and tied the tournament record shot by Mike Gilmore in 2014 at Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton.
VanDerLaan’s best run of his golfing life began with a victory in the NCAA Division II Championship in his senior year at Florida Southern, where he and younger brother Mike, who tied for 28th Wednesday, led the Moccasins to the national team title in 2017. That qualified John for the Barbasol Shootout among all national champions, which VanDerLaan also won at famed Scioto Country Club in Upper Arlington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. That earned VanDerLaan an exemption in the Barasol Championship in Nicholasville, Ky., where he shot 14-under 274 and won $21,700 after beating PGA Tour players such as Davis Love III, Stuart Appleby, Ricky Barnes, Aaron Baddeley, Tim Herron, John Huston, Chad Campbell, Robert Allenby, 2013 Travelers Championship winner Ken Duke, 1998 Greater Hartford Open champion Olin Browne and 2003 PGA Championship winner Shaun Micheel.
“The thing that I learned most from that experience is that my game is good enough to play with those guys,” VanDerLaan said. “It’s little crazy to think about winning (the Connecticut Open). I played New Haven Country Club twice in high school, but this is the biggest (local) event in the state, so it means a lot to win this.”
VanDerLaan, 22, began the final round with a one-stroke lead that he never lost thanks to a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 3 after hooking his drive into fescue He also birdied No. 5 but bogeyed the seventh. Each birdied No. 8, and Swift’s 2 at the ninth gave each a 2-under 32 on the front nine.
Swift pulled even a two-putt birdie 4 on No. 10, then after each made saving par at the 11th, VanDerLaan canned a 35-foot birdie putt for a 2 at No. 12. But Swift kept in touch with the lead when he holed a 12-foot putt after leaving 60-footer for birdie well short. The roles were reversed at the 13th, where Swift made a curling 20-foot putt for birdie before VanDerLaan sank a 14-foot par putt after his approach over the sharply slanted green.
VanDerLaan took the lead for good when he hit a sand wedge from 95 yards in the right rough that stopped 4 feet from a birdie.
“It was huge to be able to take a one-shot lead with three (holes) to play,” he said. “I figured if I played solid coming in there are birdie holes out there, but you’ve got to hit good shots so I was just trying to keep the pressure on him.”
Each missed difficult birdie putts on the next two holes, and Swift’s chance to win virtually disappeared when his second shot on the par-5 18th hole faded right into heavy fescue. Swift slashed out his third shot, which ended up 50 feet above the pin. \His first putt ran 14 feet past the hole, then after VanDerLaan two-putted from 15 feet for par, Swift missed, finishing with a bogey for 67 and 196 that earned him $6,250.
“I kept telling myself to play the course, but I was kind of playing him at the same time so it felt like match play from the start,” said Swift, of Great Neck Golf Club in Milford. “I didn’t hit it as well as I would have liked the last few holes, but I drove it really well and my putting was rock solid.
“Hey, I didn’t make a bogey until the 18th hole. I knew I’ve been putting well and just waited and finally they started dropping. Starting the day, I thought 16 under was the number (needed to win), and it was. I definitely felt the pressure coming in, but John just played rock solid and deserved to win. He hit the fairways, hit the greens. He was pretty solid with his putter, too. Just hats off to him. He played well, beat me, beat the rest of the field, too. I’m disappointed, but I will come back next year and give it another run (at Torrington Country Club).”
VanDerLaan will play in the Maine Open this week and then the Rhode Island Open and Portland (Maine) Open before heading to the Web.com Tour qualifying school, where he will be joined by fellow former New England Amateur champion Swift.
Rinaud, the first-year head pro at the Country Club of New Canaan, closed with 71 to finish third at 202, two ahead of Blake Morris, CC of Waterbury (68), Mike Ballo, Stamford (66) and Max Theodorakis, Ridgewood CC (66), who was the low amateur after losing a playoff to Evan Grenier in 2017. Grenier (Clinton CC) shot 70 for 210 and tie for 16th.
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