GOSHEN, Conn. – The overriding question during the first two rounds of the 85th Connecticut Open was: What’s hotter, the heat wave or Rasmey Kong?
While temperatures hit the mid-90s, the red-hot Kong was basically turning the cozy Torrington Country Club course into his personal pitch-and-putt. The 22-year-old from West Haven who said he likes the heat and is in search of a regular tour on which to play carded 14 birdies and only one bogey over 36 holes while amassing a four-stroke lead.
The dominating performance elicited the cry of “Kong Is King,” which might have been a bit corny but also was emphatically true. But Kong had to gather all of his inner strength and heed beneficial advice from his father/caddie Soweth in the final round Sunday after several bad breaks helped lead him to fall a stroke behind Paul Pastore with seven holes to go.
Kong’s 35-foot putt at No. 12 matched Pastore’s birdie 4 on the hole and got him even, then the two battled to the finish with Pastore’s bogey at No. 17 off a miss-club enabling Kong to claim the $12,500 first prize. Kong’s closing, 1-under-par 71 gave him a 54-hole total of 202, one better than Pastore, whose 67 tied the low round of the day.
“I didn’t play my game and got some bad breaks, which kind of got to me,” Kong said after his first victory since turning pro on Dec. 18. “But I stuck with it and wanted to make sure I shot under par because then someone would have to shoot 66 or better to beat me. I wasn’t nervous at all, but I just didn’t have it and got the bad breaks and lipped out a few putts.
“But I just tried to stay with it, and my dad helped calm me down. Being able to overcome so many bad breaks is what makes this so special. It feels great because I almost let it slip away on the front nine, but it felt good to finish strong. Paul gave me a good run at it and made me work those last few holes, but I was able to pull it together.”
Soweth, whose son fenced and played baseball and soccer before he tried golf at 12, tried to stress to Ramsey that life can sometimes be unfair as he experienced as a Cambodian refugee and immigrant before moving to Connecticut and working for the state department.
“I tell Ras to remember that you get good breaks and bad breaks and that when things go wrong, that’s golf, and many other things went right,” Soweth said. “He was a little angry after nine holes, but I told him, ‘What you lose, you can’t catch it. If you miss a birdie, forget about it, don’t worry about it.’ ”
After signing his scorecard, Kong playfully chatted with cheering junior buddies he grew up with and still competes against and proved to be prophetic.
“I told these guys I was going to win this, and I did,” Kong said.
But it appeared the bold prediction might not happen on the front nine. Kong’s misfortunes began at the par-5 second hole, where his layup landed in a divot, leading to a par on a hole where there’s a good chance to make birdie. Then his tee shot on the par-3 third hole ended up in “the worst fried egg lie you could see” in a bunker, leading to only his second bogey of the tournament. At No. 9, his approach flew over the green into an “unbelievable” fluffy lie in the rough, and he needed two chips to get onto the green on the way to a double-bogey 6.
“I caught so many bad breaks, but it’s golf, and as long as you know who you are inside and you keep grinding, it’s OK,” Kong said. “I wasn’t angry. I had nine more holes to play, and I just had to battle through. On 12, my dad told me that he (Pastore) had gone ahead, and I made a similar putt on the fifth and my speed was good all week.”
Pastore, an assistant/teaching pro at Fairview Country Club in Greenwich where he grew up caddying, made birdie putts of 30, 10, 5, 5 and 3 feet on the fourth, fifth, eighth, 10th and 12th holes to take the lead. Kong got even with a 35-foot birdie putt at No. 12 and regained the lead with a sand-wedge shot to 3 feet at the 14th hole, where Pastore had just missed a 5-footer. But Pastore got even when he chipped to 10 feet and made the putt for birdie at No. 16 before the decisive 17th hole, a 188-yard par-3 into the wind.
“I completely ballooned a 7-iron (about 30 yards short of the green) when I probably should have hit a 5-iron,” said Pastore, 23, who turned pro in 2018 after one year at the University of Hartford and two more years as an amateur. “But I wasn’t nervous all day because this is what you want. I didn’t have any real game plan starting five back. I didn’t have my best the first two days and just hoped to make some more putts. I did make a few more, but I also left some out there.
“But I’m definitely happy with the way I played, and I had a good time being in contention,” added Pastore, who pocketed $6,250. “I just played golf for the first 12 holes but then looked at a leaderboard on 13. I wasn’t surprised. I kind of figured he played two great rounds, but it’s hard to back it up. Props to him.”
Pastore, who lost a playoff in the New Hampshire Open, also had a good time with his mother, Laura, caddying for him the last 15 holes.
“I carried my bag the first three holes and got a little tired from the heat, so I asked mom to take over and she did her usual great job,” Pastore said.
And what did mom want in payment? “Love and affection,” she said with a smile.
Pastore won the CIAC Division I Golf Championship in his sophomore year at Greenwich High School, which won the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference title in his final three years. He also was the Connecticut State Player of the Year, and his brothers played golf at the University of Connecticut and Virginia. He twice qualified for the U.S. Amateur, reaching match play once, and will try the PGA Tour qualifying school this fall for the first time.
Kong, 22, began the day with a four-stroke lead over three-time Massachusetts Open champion Jason Thresher of West Suffield and was five ahead of Pastore and Fletcher Babcock of Connecticut National Golf Club in Putnam. Kong maintained at least a three-stroke lead through seven holes, but Pastore continued his birdie run and Kong made the double bogey at No. 9 that changed the complex of the tournament.
As Kong played No. 17, his father/caddie told him that Pastore had just bogeyed the hole. Kong hit a 5-iron shot just short of the green, chipped to 5 feet and made the critical putt for par. Pastore narrowly missed a 40-foot birdie bid at No. 18, and Kong then came up inches short on a 25-foot birdie try and tapped in for the victory.
Thresher, who played in the final group with Kong, bogeyed the 10th and 11th holes to end his title chances, closing with 72 for 207 and a tie for fourth with Babcock (71) and Blake Morris of the Country Club of Waterbury, whose 69 included an eagle 3 at the 16th hole. They each won $2,733.33.
Morris’ playing partner, Ben James of Great River Golf Club in Milford, also eagled No. 16 in shooting 67 for 205 that earned low amateur honors and third overall worth $500 in merchandise credit. James, 16, won the American Junior Golf Association event in Killington, Vt., on Fourth of July and then captured the Connecticut State Golf Association Junior Championship at Watertown Golf Club a week later, earning a spot in the Connecticut Open. In two weeks, he’ll represent Connecticut in the New England Junior Invitational Team Championship that he and his teammates won in 2018.
But they all ended up being also-rans to Kong, who has focused on playing rather than practicing since he turned pro under the tutelage of his father.
“He’s my coach, my mentor, my sponsor,” Kong said with a smile.
Kong won three consecutive CIAC Division II Championships (2013-15) while at North Haven High School and tied for second behind Brian Ahern in the Connecticut State Golf Association’s Palmer Cup in 2018. But after turning pro, Kong said he hated it at first because the game seemed a burden, but then he started playing better and got out of his own way.
Prior to the tournament, Kong hit only 30 balls on the range in the previous six weeks, focusing on practice putting and playing nine or 18 holes every day. He also didn’t rack his brain over every shot, was less self-critical and analytical and just played golf. He knew he had talent and just worked hard on a lot of things, some of which came around quickly.
“I’ve been playing consistently smart golf for a while, which is kind of what you have to do out here,” said Kong, who won twice on the Minor League Golf Tour in Florida as an amateur before joining the pro ranks. “My goal has been to give myself as many (birdie) chances as I could and not make a bogey. I’m not letting my golf score define who I am. I’m putting less pressure on myself and having more fun.”
It wasn’t all fun and no pressure in more hot conditions Sunday, but Kong had just enough left in the tank at the end to notch the win.
Forty-one players who shot 1-over 145 or better for 36 holes qualified for the final round. But the excessive heat helped lead to 11 of the 156 starters withdrawing after the first round, including two-time winner Ken Green, who opened with a 78 while continuing to play with a prothesis on his right leg that was amputated at the knee 10 years ago as the result of a horrific recreational vehicle accident that killed his brother, girlfriend and dog. Green, a former PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions player who will be 61 on Tuesday, managed to stave off severe migraines caused by extensive pain in his leg to finish fourth in the Connecticut Senior Open earlier in the week, but the pain and heat were too much for him to continue in the State Open.
John VanDerLaan, who shattered the tournament record last year by six strokes when he shot 16-under 194 at New Haven Country, couldn’t defend because he played in a Korn Ferry Tour event in Omaha, Neb., where he missed the cut.
This was the first time the championship was played on a weekend in hopes of getting more exposure for the club and larger crowds. The heat helped hold down the galleries, and the event will probably return to its normal Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday dates next year when it’s played at Ridgewood Country Club in Danbury.
“There’s no question that the heat kept away some people, but I think the event was a tremendous success thanks in large part to the Torrington officials and volunteers,” Moraghan said. “With a forecast of excessive heat that might even be life-threatening probably caused some people to stay away. But the players liked (the championship) and the fans liked it, so it was a great success with great golf, a great field and a great winner. Some club pros didn’t play because of scheduling conflicts, but it was still a tournament that went off without a hitch and was enjoyed by all.
“What we do moving forward is to be seen, but we’re probably go back to Monday through Wednesday. But you never know. You always have to keep all your options open.”
The CSGA made two classy moves during the tournament, having an American flag on the flagstick on the 18th hole attended by Staff Sgt. Rob Derwitsch, a Torrington native who served in Afghanistan. And there were 28 posters of former Connecticut Open champions lining either side of the driveway leading to the clubhouse. The posters included Green, Henry Ciuci, the inaugural winner in 1931, Jimmy Demaret, Dick Siderowf, Frank Staszowsk and Kyle Gallo, whose four wins are tied for the most with John Golden.
“We had six posters last year, and (director, operations, rules and competition) Ryan Hoffman did a great job of finding all kinds of pictures of winners that he made into posters,” Moraghan said.
The 2024 CSGA Amateur Championship will be played at Torrington CC in honor of the 50th anniversary of club member Dick Weigold’s victory in the state’s biggest amateur tournament.