By Bruce Berlet

GROTON, Conn. (July 13, 2020) – Bobby Gage has played just about every kind of course imaginable while competing locally, regionally and on the three major men’s tours in North America.

One of Gage’s favorite layouts is Shennecossett Golf Course, a shortish (6,562 yards) course designed by legendary architect Donald Ross that is hosting the Connecticut Senior Open for the 23rd consecutive year this week. Firm greens, humid temperatures and light winds helped make Shennecossett play at its fiendish best Monday as only five of 156 starters broke par 71.

“It’s a really fun course because of all the short shots, but it drives you crazy,” a smiling Gage said after he birdied the last two holes for a 2-under-par 69 that put him one behind co-leaders Robin Byrd and Jim Becker after the first round of the 38th championship. “Patience, total patience, is the key because you feel like you can birdie every hole, but the greens are so contoured that it’s hard to get it close to the hole. The ball always seems to be repelled away from the hole.”

Gage, the 2018 champion who has played on the PGA Tour, Korn Ferry Tour and PGA Tour Champions, bogeyed two of the first seven holes but made birdie putts of 6 and 25 feet on Nos. 8 and 9 to turn in even-par 36. He made seven pars to start the back nine before hitting a wedge to 8 feet for birdie at No. 17 and two-putting the par-5 18th hole.

In February, the 55-year-old Gage was named head pro at Green Woods Country Club in Winsted, where he learned to play the game under the tutelage of Stan Staszowski, a member of the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame and Connecticut Section PGA Hall of Fame. He also teaches at The Fountains Country Club in Lake Worth, Fla., and finished fourth in the Providence Open on Friday.

Byrd, the defending champion, and Becker, winner in 2012 and 2015, played together in a featured pairing with Fran Marrello, winner of a record 18 Section major championships.

Byrd, who won the event with a record 12-under 130 total last year, hit 17 of 18 greens, missing only No. 1, where he made his only bogey. But he birdied four of the last 13 holes, capped by a 6-iron to 8 feet at the tough par-3 15th hole and two-putt for birdie at the 18th.

“I hit my irons really good, but I never really made any putts, missed about every 10-footer that I had,” Byrd said. Byrd, 59, of Satellite Beach, Fla., won eight mini-tour events around the country in 2019, and he played in three PGA Tour Champions events in February before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the tour. He hopes to return to that tour on July 28 in Grand Blanc, Mich.

Byrd commended the Connecticut Section PGA for conducting the tournament in a year in which so many have been canceled. It’s an especially good tune-up for returning to the PGA Tour Champions.

“They really deserve a lot of credit for what they’re doing here,” Byrd said.

Becker, 64, the pro at Blue Fox Run Golf Club in Avon, bogeyed the third and fourth holes but hit an 8-iron approach shot to 12 inches for birdie at No. 6 and then chipped to a foot for a tap-in at the par-5 eighth hole. He started the back nine with seven pars, including a good save at No. 16 after hitting his tee shot into a bunker, and then closed with a flourish. He holed a 15-foot birdie putt at the 17th hole and then hit a drive and 8-iron to 15 feet and made the putt for eagle 3 at No. 18.

“The 18th saved the day,” Becker said. “The course was playing about as easy as it can play with the conditions, and I just hung in there after getting 2-over so quickly. I felt I played good enough to shoot 65 or 66, but I fouled up at the start. But I’m happy with the comeback.”

Tied for fourth at 70 are Jan Wivestad of Winsted and Dave Fusco of Stony Point, N.Y., who made eagle 2 at the 14th hole and closed with two birdies. They’re one ahead of six players, including former PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions player John Elliott, who had the comeback of the day to get into title contention again after losing a playoff to Jerry Courville in 2016 and winning a year later.

Elliott, an All-American at Central Connecticut State University who plays with a debilitating disease in both hands, was 2-over for seven holes and dropped to 4-over when his drive at No. 11 rolled inches out of bounds, leading to a double-bogey 6. But after three pars, Elliott birdied the last four holes from 12 inches, 12 feet, 12 inches and 3 feet to finish in the logjam at 71.

“I hit it as good the first 12 holes as I did the last six but something always seemed to go wrong,” he said.

Still, Elliott, who stays in shape largely by caddying at famed Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., carded six birdies, the most on opening day. He is tied with Billy Downes of Longmeadow, Mass.; Robert Tramonti of Cumberland, R.I.; Charlie Bolling of Glen Cove, N.Y.; and amateurs Chris Maxwell of Farmington and Michael Mercier of Juno Beach, Fla.

Marrello, of Canaan CC, is in a 14-way tie for 24th at 73.

Seventy-seven players who shot 77 or better qualified for the final round, which begins at 8 a.m. on Tuesday. Tennis Hall of Famer Ivan Lendl of Goshen was among 12 players at 77. Pros will be shooting for $27,625, with the winner receiving $4,000. Amateurs will compete for $2,100 in merchandise credit, with the winner earning $300.

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