DARIEN, Conn. – Peter Ballo notched his second “family daily double” of the year on Wednesday and wished his father Mike had been able to witness the feat.
Mike Ballo Sr. won the Connecticut Open in 1969 and 1978, and until Wednesday at the Country Club of Darien, no father and son had ever captured the second biggest golf tournament in the state to the Travelers Championship. But after an opening three-putt bogey, Ballo notched six birdies for a closing 5-under-par 66, a 54-hole total of 12-under 201 and a five-stroke victory over amateur Ben James.
Ballo, the assistant pro at Silvermine Golf Club in Norwalk, won the Westchester (N.Y.) PGA Match Play Championship in April, the first “family daily double” of the year. He began the final round two strokes behind amateur Ben Carpenter of the host club, got even with three birdies in six holes in a front-nine, 2-under 34 and continued his precise play on the back nine with three more birdies, including a “choked 6-iron” to 12 inches on the par-3 16th hole that put an exclamation point to the victory.
“This is one of my four majors, so to be able to win this after my father won is really special,” said Ballo, who finished second last year and earned $14,000 on Wednesday. “There was a little doubt early because Ben was hitting it super, but the birdie at the seventh hole got me to another level as far as confidence and I was lucky enough to hit it a little closer at the end. The birdie at the 13th was huge, and the shot at the 16th was every bit as satisfying as the one on 7.”
Ballo hit his approach at the seventh hole to 5 feet for birdie as Carpenter was making a bogey and then drove the 298-yard, par-4 eighth and two-putted from 70 feet for another birdie. He made a 10-footer for birdie at No. 13, two-putted the par-5 15th and then capped his winning effort round with the near ace at the 16th.
“The swing I had on my approach shot on No. 7 really brought me to a different area with my mind and comfort level,” Ballo said. “I felt fine prior, but hitting that shot kind of gave me a different mojo and kick-started that birdie barrage.”
Ballo’s best year of his career has also included qualifying for the PGA Championship.
“It was the first year that I was eligible, so it has been a year of firsts,” Ballo said.
After Ballo made his final putt, he shook hands with James and Carpenter and then gave emotional hugs to his wife Kat, his mother Page, brother Mike Jr., who finished seventh, and Stu Waack, the head pro at Silvermine who was Mike Sr.’s assistant for 11 years and “is like our godfather,” according to Mike Jr.
Fittingly, the Ballos will finally receive the 2020 Family of the Year Award from Metropolitan (N.Y.) Writers Association in the fall. They were scheduled to receive it 14 months ago, but the awards dinner was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s tremendous to have their names on the same trophy,” Page Ballo said. “The Connecticut Open was always so special to Mike (Sr.) because it was his State Open, and now it has carried over to the boys.”
Mike Sr. has been unable to watch his sons play in person for a while because he sustained three seizures in the last two years. Page tried to get her husband to wait at the 18th green, but they decided against it and he watched on the Internet at their home in Stamford.
Ballo said he owed much of his success this year to his mental coach, Greg Cartin, who works with players on the PGA Tour.
“I had been really close in the Westchester Open and Connecticut Open, but it’s a learning experience and mentally I was able to find a different zone and felt ready to win,” Ballo said. “It’s hard to put into words exactly what Greg did; it was just a comfort thing. We just talk, and he’s on board with my aggressive behavior. I talk to my golf ball all the time, and he taught me when to get emotional and not get emotional. I’ve been playing where I haven’t had much nerves.”
Ballo’s effort certainly impressed Carpenter, who will be playing on the Yale University golf team again this fall after missing last season due to the pandemic. He had spent three days this week on “The Business of Hollywood” class to try to lighten his course load his senior year.
“It was probably the best round I’ve ever seen here, considering the circumstances,” said Carpenter, 20, who closed with 74 to finish third at 207. “I was a little off and unfortunately couldn’t pull it off, but I’m happy with the way I played and grinded all the way.”
Carpenter, who received a special invite from the CSGA because he had been unable to try to qualify but was a leading player competing on his home course, didn’t get much rest as he has to play 36 holes in the Metropolitan (N.Y.) Amateur Championship on Thursday, starting at 7:30 a.m.
James, 18, is closing in on a Connecticut Open title, having finished third at Torrington CC in 2019 and now second. It was the latest stellar showing by someone who could end up being the best junior player in Connecticut golf annals. He won two national tournaments earlier this year, tied for second in the PGA of America Junior Boys Championship and lost on the second playoff hole in the final of the American Junior Golf Association Polo Match Play Championship to Nick Dunlap, who won the U.S. Junior Amateur on Saturday. He has qualified for the Junior Ryder Cup Team after being on the victorious Junior Presidents Cup in Australia in 2019.
“I didn’t really put any pressure on Peter, but he played awesome,” said James, the second-ranked junior player in the country who will be a senior at Hamden Hall Country Day. “I’m just glad that I grinded it out and finished the way I did.”
James grabbed second thanks to three birdies in the last four holes, including a 10-foot putt for 2 at the 17th hole and a 4-footer on the par-5 18th that enabled him to beat Carpenter by a shot.
Defending champion Max Theodorakis (Ridgewood CC-Danbury) shot 68 to finish fourth at 209, one ahead of Paul Pastore (Fairview CC-Greenwich, 68) and Blake Morris (Waterbury, 70). Mike Ballo Jr. shot 71 for 211.
For the first time in the tournament’s 87-year history, the host club made a $5,000 donation to the CSGA’s Widdy Neale Scholarship.
PHOTO CREDIT: Sam Dostaler of the Connecticut State Golf Association