GOSHEN, Conn. –Talk about being on a roll.
Two weeks ago, Ben James shot 13-under-par for 54 holes and celebrated the Fourth of July with a four-stroke victory in the American Junior Golf Association tournament in Killington, Vt.
Four days later, James made seven birdies while qualifying for match play in the Connecticut State Golf Association Junior Championship at Watertown Golf Club, where he rolled to victory in four of five matches, including 6 and 5 in the final against Gunnar Granito.
James continued his stellar play Friday in the first round of the Connecticut Open at Torrington Country Club, carding five consecutive birdies on the back nine in a 5-under 65 that put him two strokes behind leader Rasmey Kong and one back of fellow amateur Max Theodorakis. Pros Blake Morris, C.J. Swift, Michael VanDerLaan, Jason Thresher and amateur Cody Paladino, the 2016 champion, are tied for fourth at 66.
“I hit the ball pretty similar the whole day and putts just fell on the back,” said James, who opened with 11 consecutive pars before his birdie binge. “On the front, I wasn’t taking a good line on the ball and my great speed wasn’t great, but on the back, I got a feel for the greens, was aligning the ball right and played much better.”
Better indeed. James, 16, who will be a sophomore at Hamden Hall in the fall, started his birdie run with a two-putt from 25 feet on the par-5 12th hole. He hit a wedge shot to 6 feet at No. 13 and then made a 20-foot putt at the 14th. He capped his surge with a 15-foot putt at No. 15 and chipped to 2 feet for birdie at the par-5 16th hole.
James, from Great River Golf Club in Milford, kept his lead with a stellar par at the 18th hole, where his drive stopped in thick grass in the left rough. He gouged out a pitching-wedge shot from 118 yards onto the green and two-putted from 25 feet for par.
“I think I’ve got a good groove going,” understated James, who is 18 under in his last four medal-play rounds (66-68-66-67). “My ball-striking has been the same, but I’m putting much better. This is one of the best putting rounds I’ve had all year. And I’ve been working hard and much smarter, even with what I’m doing in practice. I’m not just there for 10 hours hitting balls. I’m using a lot more devices and using my Trackman a lot more, not hitting the ball without any purpose.”
James, who had close friend Cameron Besaw caddying for him, was second in the New England Prep School Junior Championship to Hamden Hall teammate Jackson Romer. He already has a golf scholarship to the University of Virginia thanks in part of help from former Cavaliers coach Mike Moraghan, who is now the CSGA executive director.
James said he’s not thinking about possibly notching the biggest win of his young career, but he firmly believes it’s possible.
“I know there’s a lot of good players in the tournament, but I come to win,” said James, who missed the cut in his previous two Connecticut Open starts. “I have a lot of experience, and I know I’m playing well and feel I’m one of the top guys here. I’m not really thinking about a number (to win). I just try to play and have some fun out there.
“This is a bonus because I didn’t even know I was going to play in this (until he won the CSGA Junior Championship). I’m not really thinking about winning right now. I’m just thinking about playing my best. It’s not like a junior tournament where you’re just trying to have fun. I’ve got to say it would be pretty impressive (if he won). One of my top goals is to win everything in Connecticut, not now but someday.”
Kong, 22, who started on No. 8, made a 15-foot putt on his final hole for his eighth birdie and the lead. But the winner of three consecutive CIAC Division II Championships in 2013-15 while at North Haven High School said he wasn’t surprised to be the pacesetter after hitting 13 of 14 fairways and 17 of 18 greens in regulation.
“Shooting 7 under doesn’t shock me, and I could have been lower if I hadn’t lipped out three putts and three-putted once (at No. 11),” said Kong, who tied for second in the CSGA’s Palmer Cup in 2018. “I turned pro December 18 and hated it at first, and then I started playing better and got out of my own way. I’ve probably hit 30 balls on the range in the last month and a half. I putt here and there. I just play 9 or 18 (holes) every day. I don’t think anymore. I’m less analytical and just play golf. I know I have the talent because I worked so hard when I was younger.
“I’ve been working on a lot of things and some are coming around. I’ve been playing consistently smart golf for a while, which is kind of what you have to do out here. My goal was to give myself as many (birdie) chances as I could and not make a bogey. I made one on the three-putt on 11, but you’ve got to bounce back because the par-3s here aren’t easy. I played pretty smart all day.”
Kong was especially pleased because his father, Soweth, was caddying for him. Soweth is a native of Cambodia who moved to Connecticut and worked for the state government.
“He’s my coach, my mentor, my sponsor,” Kong said with a smile.
After a par on his first hole, Kong hit a wedge to 12 feet for his birdie at No. 9. After the three-putt from 50 at the 11th hole, he nearly made back-to-back eagles, chipping to 18 inches at the par-5 12th and hitting a wedge to a foot at No. 13. A chip to 2 feet set up another birdie at No. 16, then Kong finished with a flourish. He hit a sand-wedge approach to 8 feet at No. 1, hit a 9-iron to 8 feet for a birdie 2 at No. 3, made a 20-foot putt at No. 4 and then converted the 15-footer at his final hole.
Theodorakis, 21, who will be a senior at Campbell University, is also on a roll as far as the championship is concerned. He lost a three-hole aggregate playoff to Jeff Evanier at Ellington Ridge Country Club in 2017 and then was low amateur last year at New Haven CC. He also lost in the final in the CSGA Junior Championship at Watertown GC in 2014 and had one win among six Top-10 finishes this year at Campbell.
“I didn’t make any mistakes,” said Theodorakis, of Ridgewood Country Club in Danbury. “I hit 17 greens, so you’re going to have a lot of (birdie) looks when you do that. And I didn’t have any three-putts, which is always nice, because I was careful with not having downhill putts because the greens were really fast. But I’d like to play the par-5s better because I was only 1 under.”
Starting on No. 8, Theodorakis hit wedges to 6 and 9 feet to set up birdies on his first two holes. His only birdie on the back nine was a wedge shot from the rough at No. 14 that he got to 10 feet. After making the turn to the front nine, he two-putted the par-5 second hole for birdie and then hit wedge shots to 6 feet at the fourth and seventh holes.
Theodorakis said he had added 10-15 yards off the tee, enabling him to take advantage of shorter courses such as the 6,651-yard, par-72 Torrington CC layout.
“I came in wanting to win,” Theodorakis said. “I don’t want second. I don’t want third. I want to win.”
The last amateur to win the tournament was Jeff Hedden of Old Lyme in a playoff in 2008 at the Round Hill Club in Greenwich with his wife, Nicole, a standout women’s player in Connecticut, carrying his bag.
Blake, 27, who plays out of the Country Club of Waterbury, opened with five of his seven birdies and a double-bogey 6 at No. 4 in his first six holes. He made his third birdie 2 at the 11th hole and notched his final birdie at No. 13, but a bogey at the 18th hole cost him a share of the lead.
“A lot of good and some bad,” said Blake, who has won four Minor League Tour events in Florida and made the cut in a Kerry Ferry Tour event this year. “You can definitely make a lot of birdies out here, but the course has a lot of tricks to it where you can make some not so good scores quickly without doing a lot of bad. I’ll make birdies out here, but like today, the double on No. 4 was a really bad tee shot and then I compounded it. The bogey on 18 was a bad tee shot, and you have to be spot on there or you’ve got 12 feet and can’t keep the next one within 10 feet.
“I’m not known as a great first-round guy, so for me to get off to a decent start is pretty cool. It wasn’t a great score, but it was something good. I’m usually a second-round guy, so now it’s just keep trying to get under par each nine for the rest of the week. I’ve been playing good and trending up, so it’s just a matter of keep trying to get better to the point where you can have what I call a job, playing on Sundays.
“I can’t really say (what it’s going to take to win). A lot of that is going to depend on the weather and the pins. If the greens get faster and you get some tough pins, it can get tough because there is so much slope. Right now, I thought 4 under was an OK score because I thought there were a lot of birdies to be had out there. I’m not going to be really watching the scoreboard because I want to go tomorrow and put up another good score. My goal is to get to double digits (under par), and the key for the rest of the week is just keeping bogeys off the card.”
Swift had five birdies and one bogey in a carryover from last year at New Haven Country Club, where he shot 14 under, the second-lowest score in tournament history, but finished second to John VanDerlaan’s 16 under.
“As soon as I drove in, I saw John VanDerLaan’s picture as a past winner, and that gave me a little extra motivation,” said Swift, who is on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica. “It’s the first round, so I’m moving in the right direction. It’s good to get off to a good start because you can’t win it the first day, but you can lose it.
“After the rain (Thursday), the greens are soft, and the course is short, so you have a lot of wedges in your hand. If you hit your numbers (distance-wise), you can shoot a good score. … My putter was good. I had one three-bogey bogey on 12, and other than that, my putter was good. I was playing OK coming in. For some reason, I always peak at this time.”
So, too, do the VanDerLaan brothers. John isn’t defending because he’s playing in a Kerry Ford Tour event in Omaha, Neb., but younger brother Michael was bogey-free until his drive on the 18th hole finished behind a tree and led to a bogey. John and Michael are the only brothers to win back-to-back NCAA Division II Championship titles (2018 and 2019). They also were on the Florida Southern team that won the national championship in 2017 and reached the semifinals in 2016, 2018 and 2019.
“Before we came here, my dad (John) and I talked about me defending the Division II championship (for the family) and trying to do it again this week,” said Michael, who played three years with his older brother at Pomperaug High School in Southern and Florida Southern. “We’ve been competitive in everything: golf, basketball and catching the biggest fish. We want to beat the heck out of each other in everything we do. Winning the national championship gave me some validation, and now I’m trying to get my foot in the door on some tours.”
VanDerLaan started toward his first 4-under total with birdie putts of 6, 30, 3 and 8 feet on the first, second, fifth and seventh holes. After eight consecutive pars, he chipped to 2 feet and made birdie 4 at No. 16. But the bad drive into the right trees at the 18th hole led to his lone bogey.
“Four under puts me in position, but it means absolutely nothing right now,” VanDerlaan said. “My goal was 4 under each day, and I’d love to get two more.”
Jeff Curl, son of former PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions player Rod Curl, withdrew on Tuesday because of hand surgery that he had five weeks ago that didn’t heal in time for him to compete this week. Curl won the 2013 State Open at Torrington CC when he made a 40-foot birdie putt on the severely slanted 18th green on the first playoff hole of a four-way playoff after blowing a three-stroke lead with two holes to go.
This is the first time in 85 Connecticut Opens that the tournament is being played on the weekend. Moraghan had considered having the event on the weekend for about six years, and when Torrington CC officials, lauded for their excellent work six years ago, showed an interest in being the first club to host on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the decision was made to give it a try in hopes of attracting larger crowds. The hot weather might cut into the those hopes.
Second-round play Saturday begins at 7 a.m. off the eighth tee and at 7:30 a.m. on the first tee. The low 40 players and ties after the first two rounds qualify for the final 18 holes on Sunday. The total purse is $50,000, and the low pro will earn $12,500 and the low amateur will receive a to-be-determined amount of pro shop credit.
The 2020 State Open at Ridgewood Country Club in Danbury will return to the tournament’s normal dates of Monday through Wednesday. Moraghan said the only other club that has considered holding the event on a weekend is Shuttle Meadow CC in Kensington in 2023.
The championship is open free to the public, and parking is available at the nearby Goshen Fairgrounds.