DOWNES WINS PGA MATCH PLAY TITLE
By Bruce Berlet
HARTFORD, Conn. – When it comes to drama, it would be difficult to beat the final of the Connecticut Section PGA Match Play Championship at Pequabuck Golf Club on Wednesday.
In perhaps the closest match in tournament history, Billy Downes made an improbable birdie on the final hole to beat nine-time champion Fran Marrello and win his second title in only four starts this year.
After the tied adversaries each parred nine consecutive holes, Downes appeared to be in trouble on No. 18 when his drive ended up in the rough on hardpan with a clump of grass behind his ball 90 yards from the green. Downes then hit a lob wedge that barely got off the ground, went 50 yards in the air, rolled another 40 yards and stopped 4 feet from the cup.
“The lie was just awful so I just tried to gouge it out and don’t know if I even got the club on the ball,” said Downes, seeded 20th largely due to a limited schedule caused by back problems. “It was a little hands and a lot of luck, and I was really fortunate. But it happens in golf.
“It was a fun match that was close and where we both would have liked to make a few more putts. But I’m ecstatic. It’s cool to compete again and to get in the mix after having to take time off earlier in the year because of my back.”
After Marrello lipped out a 15-foot birdie try, Downes made his 4-footer for his third birdie of the day that earned him $2,000 and 100 Player of the Year points. His 13th career victory came after he won the Connecticut Section Senior PGA Championship, tied for third in the Connecticut Section Championship and had to withdraw from the Connecticut Senior Open because of an ailing back that has bothered him for years, especially early in a 2020 season reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I had to withdraw from the Connecticut Senior Open because I literally couldn’t swing the club because my back hurt so bad,” said Downes, the head pro at GreatHorse in Hampden, Mass. “I tried to keep going but just couldn’t do it. My back bothered me a little this week because of all the matches (five in three days), but when you’re in competition, you tend to forget about it, especially when you get in the mix after not being able to play a lot.”
Downes, 54, the 2017 Senior Player of the Year who has competed in the Travelers Championship three times, never trailed in the final after he birdied the first hole. No. 3 seed Marrello won the second hole with a par, but Downes regained the lead when Marrello bogeyed No. 5. It was even again when Downes bogeyed the par-3 sixth hole, then the two tied the next eleven holes before the dramatic finish.
Marrello’s record nine Match Play Championship victories are among his record 25 major Senior individual titles, 10 more than runner-up Adam Rainaud. The 66-year-old earned 75 Player of the Year points to finish behind Chris Tallman, has been POY seven times (1992-96, 2007 and 2012), second to nine for Paul Ryiz, and a record nine Senior POY titles (2005, 2007-08, 2010-12, 2014-15 and 2019). He and Tony Kelley (2007, 2009) are the only players to win both the POY and Senior POY titles in the same year.
Downes advanced to the final with a 5-and-3 victory over Jordan Gosler (Manchester CC), who had eliminated the top-seeded Tallman (The Orchards GC-South Hadley, Mass.) 3 and 1 in the quarterfinals. Tallman had clinched his second POY title in three years with a 5-and-4 victory over Travelers Championship tournament director Nathan Grube (TPC River Highlands-Cromwell) in the first round. Marrello, a member of the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame and Section Hall of Fame, reached the title match when he rallied to beat Bob Mucha (Edgewood GC-Southwick, Mass.), 1 up.
Tallman, who won the POY title in 2018 and finished second to Kyle Bilodeau last year, led the final points standings with 357.50, followed by Marrello, 268.67; William Street (Whitney Farms GC-Monroe) 247.67; Kevin Mahaffy, Pequabuck GC, 196; Jan Wivestad, Crestbrook GC-Watertown, 196; Gosler, 193; Brian Keiser, Longmeadow (Mass.) CC, 189.50; Mucha, 179; C.J. Konkowski, Hartford, 158; Mike Martin, Tashua Knolls GC-Trumbull, 155.50; and Downes, 151.67.
In the Senior Player of the Year points race, Mucha leads Wivestad 250-227, with Marrello third at 203. Since there were no Senior POY points available in the Match Play Championship, the Senior POY title will be decided in the PGA of America Senior Club Professional Championship on Oct. 15-18 at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Marrello won’t be in the running because he decided not to compete in the national event.
The final Section tournaments of the year are the Dell Kinney Pro-Pro Championship at Ludlow (Mass.) CC on Oct. 13 and the Lake of Isles PGA Pro-Scratch at Lake of Isles GC in North Stonington on Oct. 19-20. The Del Kinney will be especially fun for Downes, who will play in the event for the first time with his brother Bob, the head pro at the Country Club of Wilbraham, Mass.