By Bruce Berlet
BLOOMFIELD, Conn. – Kyle Bilodeau has spent 2019 with one goal in mind in his final year as a professional golfer.
“I wanted to go out with a bang, and now I’ve done it. Being Player of the Year has been on my mind all year, so it’s nice to have achieved my No. 1 goal.”
Fittingly, the third-seeded Bilodeau rallied in the semifinals to defeat 2018 Player of the Year Chris Tallman, who had an eight-point lead over Bilodeau starting the final event of the year in which points could be earned. In the final, Bilodeau, the 2013 winner and runner-up in 2014-16, will face three-time champion Mike Martin, who rallied for a 1-up semifinal victory over Fran Marrello, winner of a record nine Match Play titles among his record 24 individual championships. The final was originally scheduled to start at 8 a.m. on Thursday but was pushed back a day because of an ominous weather forecast for several inches of rain.
Tallman, the No. 2 seed from Orchards Golf Club in South Hadley, Mass., made 30-foot birdie putts on the second, third and fifth holes to take a 2-up lead, but Bilodeau won the fourth and sixth holes with a birdie and a par to get even. Bilodeau, a PGA Active Member not affiliated with a club, birdied No. 10 to take his first lead, and he and Tallman tied the 11th hole with birdies before Tallman reclaimed the advantage with short birdie putts on Nos. 14 and 15. Then after the wind picked up and the temperatures and rain continued to fall, each parred the 16th hole before Tallman’s 7-iron shot on the par-3 17th came up short in heavy rough in the edge of a hazard. He chipped to 7 feet but lipped out the putt to save par.
“We both played well, but I think the difference was the 17th hole,” Tallman said. “I had the lead and hit a really good tee shot but misjudged the wind, which knocked the ball down.”
Bilodeau and Tallman each parred the 18th hole, then Bilodeau won on the first extra hole just as he had done when he defeated 11th seeded Jordan Gosler in the quarterfinals in what might have been the best match in tournament history. Tallman pulled his second shot on the par-4 first hole into a bunker and then blasted his ball across the green into the rough. He couldn’t convert his chip, and when Bilodeau two-putted for par, he had won the match and clinched his second Omega Player of the Year Award. Tallman received 50 points as a semifinalist to finish the year with 404.50, and Bilodeau will have 446.17 if he adds 100 for a win or 421.17 if he gets 75 for being the runner-up.
Bilodeau will be done with professional golf at the end of the year and focus full-time on completing graduate school at the University of Hartford and earning a masters’ degree in accounting with specialization in corporate taxes. He has already done some interviews in anticipation of completing his masters’ degree in May.
“I’ll still play some fun golf and hopefully get my amateur status back,” Bilodeau said.
Tallman was disappointed he didn’t win a second Player of the Year Award but was satisfied with his game after making six birdies in the semifinal and his play throughout 2019.
“I probably played better this year than last year because a majority of my rounds were in the 60s,” Tallman said. “I was a few strokes lower than last year and had a lot more wins in pro-ams outside the Section. It was a little tough with my new job, which caused me to miss a few events. I moved from Cold Spring Country Club (in Belchertown, Mass.) to the Orchards (in Agawam, Mass.) just after I played in the Travelers Championship, which was really neat when I was hitting balls on the range next to (major championship winners) Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari.
“Overall, I’m happy with the way I played but got a little tired. At the end of the day, Kyle played strong and won the big tournaments.”
The Bilodeau-Gosler match had to be seen to be believed. Bilodeau saved par on the first playoff hole to defeat Gosler, who had eight birdies in the first 13 holes, including a personal-best six in a row starting at No. 9. But the 2015 champion bogeyed the 17th, 18th and first extra hole to suffer an agonizing loss.
Gosler had a 1-up lead before he bogeyed Nos. 7 and 8. He and Bilodeau then each birdied the ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th holes before Gosler continued his sub-par binge at Nos. 13 and 14. While doubling his previous best for consecutive birdies, Gosler made putts of 15, 5, 8, 25, 20 and 25 feet to forge a 2-up lead with four holes to go. But he bogeyed the last two holes of regulation after hitting his tee shot in the rough at the par-3 17th and hooking his drive behind a tree on the par-4 18th.
Gosler appeared to have an advantage on the first playoff hole, the par-4 first, when he hit his drive in the fairway while Bilodeau was in the right rough. Bilodeau hit his second shot over the green, but Gosler pushed his approach into a bunker and then blasted over the green. Bilodeau hit a deft chip to 3 feet, and after Gosler chipped to 2 feet, Bilodeau made his putt for a winning par.
“I gave it such a great effort, which is all you can do,” said Gosler, 36, who is in his second year as Director of Golf at Twin Hills Country Club in Coventry. “I knew I had to play great to beat such a great player, and I’m just disappointed that I played bad at the end, just kind of scummed it around.”
Tallman was at the other end of the spectrum with his lopsided win over Bayram. He took the lead for good with a par on the second hole and then holed a 30-yard bunker shot for eagle 2 at No. 4. Tallman won Nos. 7-9 with a par, bogey and the first of three consecutive birdies. A par at the 12th hole closed out Bayram.
In the semifinals, Martin bogeyed five of the first seven holes to go 3-down, but he made birdie putts of 25 and 3 feet at Nos. 8 and 9 to get close at the turn. Marrello then parlayed good fortune and skill into an eagle 3 at the par-5 11th hole. He hit his second shot a bit fat, his ball narrowly clearing a hazard and stopping in the rough in front the green. He then proceeded to hole a 30-foot chip for eagle 3 and a 2-up lead.
After Martin and Marrello each parred the next two holes, Martin made an 8-foot par putt to win No. 12. Each parred the 15th and 16th holes, with Martin making a clutch 5-foot par putt at the latter. He then got even with a 12-foot birdie putt at the 17th hole and hit a delicate chip to 3 feet and made the putt for par at the 18th. Meanwhile, Marrello hit his second shot from the rough 35 feet past the cup, rolled his first putt to 5 feet and missed to the right, ending a chance to go 10-for-10 in finals.
“I played good in the morning but really don’t believe what happened (in the afternoon) because you usually don’t see Fran do that,” Martin said. “He kind of gave me a few holes, and then I made some good saves at the end. But at this stage of my career, it’s a treat just to be in the final. Plus, it’s important because it helps my brand.”
Martin, 56, is in his sixth year at Tashua Knolls Golf Course in Trumbull, where he is an assistant to director of golf Bobby Brown, whom he said saved his career, and he works part-time at the Highland Club in Shelton and repairs clubs for 20 courses.
“I’m going to have to drive the ball better in the final,” said Martin, who started the tournament eighth in the POY points standings and is 3-for-4 in title matches. “My driver is usually my best club, but it wasn’t today and some of that is physical (ailing left hip and quad). But I was just looking to win a few matches, so I could finish in the Top 10 in the Section points standings, so I would qualify for the Challenge Cup and Connecticut Open.”
Marrello, 65, of Canaan Country Club, had already qualified for both of those events while winning a record ninth Section Senior Play of the Year Award. The 2009 inductee into the Connecticut Golf Hall Fame also has been Player of the Year seven times and is the only player to earn both POY Awards in the same year.
“We were both sloppy, but he hung in there,” said Marrello, who finished third in the POY Award race with 261.34 points. “My best golf was yesterday, but today it was pretty sloppy all day, though I did hang in there.”
But being Senior POY again made it another good year.
“It was disappointing to miss qualifying for the U.S. Open early in the year when I four-putted a hole,” Marrello said. “I didn’t feel I played all that well this year and was helped by Billy Downes being out with a back injury. I don’t feel as if I did anything special, but I grinded it out and got a little luck when I overtook Mark Farrell at the very end to win the PGA Senior Championship.
“My putting is still mediocre, so I have to hit a lot of greens in regulation to stay in contention, but it’s a thrill to still be competitive and healthy.”
Tallman, Marrello and Kirkpatrick earned exemptions into the 2020 PGA of America Professional National Championship on April 26-29 at Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa in Austin, Texas, when they were the top three finishers in the Connecticut Section Professional Championship. The 2019 Section Player of the Year gets the fourth exemption, but because Bilodeau is not eligible, Frank Leja (Springfield Country Club) earned the final spot as the first alternate.