By Bruce Berlet
ELLINGTON, Conn. (June 13, 2019) – After his freshman year at St. John’s University, Ryan McCormick had a lingering bad attitude from the Redmen withdrawing from a rain-delayed tournament that he was leading because they had to catch a flight home.
“I was going to leave the team,” McCormick recalled. “I really wasn’t happy.”
Enter Vermont native Keegan Bradley, a St. John’s grad whose four PGA Tour victories include the 2011 PGA Championship, which makes him and World Golf Hall of Fame amateur Francis Ouimet of Brookline, Mass., two of only four players to win in his major championship debut. Bradley’s aunt is former LPGA player and Hall of Fame member Pat Bradley of Westford, Mass.
“Keegan graduated just before I started at St. John’s, but he always kept in touch with the team,” McCormick said. “When I thought about leaving, he convinced me to stay. He sent me a couple of nice messages saying he was glad I was going to stay. He steered me in a good direction, and I’m glad he did.”
McCormick’s immediate goal now was to try to qualify for the Travelers Championship, which begins Thursday at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell. McCormick took the first step when he shot a 5-under-par 67 Wednesday to share first place in the first round of Travelers Championship pre-qualifying at Ellington Ridge Country Club. McCormick, 27, of Middletown, N.J., birdied six of the first 14 holes with his lone bogey coming at the treacherous par-4 18th. His 67 was matched by Daniel O’Rourke of Milford, N.J., who overcame two early bogeys with three birdies and eagle 3s at the fifth and 13th holes.
It was the third time in three tries that McCormick got through the pre-qualifier, but he has yet to make his PGA Tour debut.
“I’m just waiting to have a good week at the right time,” McCormick said.
Reaching the major leagues of golf would be special for the son of a club pro, Mark McCormick, at Suburban Golf Club in Union, N.J. But the younger McCormick actually learned the game from Pete Dachisen, who lived across the street and had a net behind his house, and now works with Bernie Najai in Owen Mills, Md. While at St. John’s, McCormick became friends with the University of Connecticut’s Brian Hughes and Zach Zaback, who won the 2014 and 2016 Connecticut State Amateur and 2016 Palmer Cup and is now playing on the Mackenzie Tour in Canada. Hughes advanced when he shot 70 on Wednesday, but Zaback failed after a 73 in the second round of qualifying on Thursday that was played in chilly, rainy conditions.
While at St. John’s, McCormick played against Dylan Newman, who won twice while at Iona College and is the first-year assistant pro at Brae Burn CC in Purchase, N.Y. Newman birdied six of the first 11 holes, including four in a row starting at No. 8, in shooting 67 in the second round.
“I hit it solid, and when I missed a green, I chipped it close,” Newman said. “And I hit putted really well. I didn’t make anything out of the ordinary, but I made the 10-to-15 footers.”
It was the fourth time in six tries that Newman advanced to the Open qualifying on Monday. Newman, 28, who has finished in the Top 10 in the New York State Open three times, has been playing on mini-tours in Florida and Georgia after going 0-for-3 in PGA Tour qualifying.
But Newman hasn’t given up hope of reaching the big time.
“My goal is to teach and get my (PGA of America) Class A membership,” said Newman, who grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y. “I have a job now, so I can try to make the PGA Tour whenever I want. But tomorrow I have lessons and clinics from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., so I’ll be going to sleep early tonight.”
Brant Peaper advanced through no thanks of the airlines. A member of the Mackenzie Tour in Canada, Peaper’s clubs were lost after he flew to Vancouver, British Columbia, so he had to take a red-eye return flight to Atlanta to reclaim them. He then flew to Connecticut on Monday and managed to get in an 18-hole practice round for his third straight pre-qualifier.
“I was basically in airports for three days,” Peaper said. “It was brutal, but this was a nice consolation.”
It ended up being “nice” thanks to 20-foot eagle putts on the par-5 11th and 13th holes on the way to a back-nine, 4-under 32 for 69, which tied for third. He was helped by Old Lyme CC pro Rob Barbeau, who is a friend of Brian Peaper, the pro at Lost Tree CC in North Palm Beach, Fla., and caddied for Brant. Brant has been a roommate of Mike Johnson, the assistant pro at Glastonbury Hills CC, for several years who will caddie for Brant on Monday.
Peaper, 28, won two tournaments while at Indiana University and still has his sights set on his first PGA Tour event.
“It’s a grind, but I’m sticking with making the PGA Tour,” Peaper said. “I think I can do it, but I just have to clean up my mistakes that hold you back.”
Michael VanDerlaan also has never played in a PGA Tour event, but he did go to school in Newtown with the two children of Joe LaCava, the veteran PGA Tour caddie who now works for Tiger Woods.
“I’ve never really talked to Joe about the PGA Tour, but I know him pretty well because I went to school with his daughter Lauren for 13 years,” VanDerlaan said of the girl who was a member of the CIAC Girls Championship team at Pomperaug High School in Southbury.
VanDerlaan has actually spent much of his 21 years trying to keep up with older brother John, who won 11 tournaments last year, including the Connecticut Open. Both were NCAA Division II national champions and played on national championship teams at Florida Southern University, where Michael earned a degree in business administration and hopes to get his Masters in the same subject. Michael and John are believed to be the only brothers to win individual titles and play on a national championship team at any NCAA level.
VanDerlaan made six birdies but also had five bogeys and missed advancing by a stroke. So, too, did Isaiah Logue, a Liberty University grad from Royston, Ga., who took nine months off from the game last year.
“I had burnout,” Logue said. “I made some swing changes and then came back and worked as a golf coach at Camp Winaukee in Moultonborough, N.H. “I got refreshed and then started working at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Chambersburg, Pa., until Jan. 15, when I started playing mini-tours again in Florida.”
But his bad luck continued Wednesday as he missed advancing by a stroke in a third noteworthy event. He barely failed to qualify for the PGA Tour’s Greenbrier Classic last year and missed advancing to the U.S. Open this year by a stroke despite shooting 6-under 30 on his final nine holes.
The Connecticut Section PGA went to two pre-qualifiers this year because interest in playing in the Travelers Championship had continued to increase every year. In 2018, there were starting times from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., and several players had to return the next day to complete their rounds. There were 191 entries this year, with 85 playing on Wednesday and 106 on Thursday.
And the added interest in trying to qualify for the biggest sporting event in Connecticut was demonstrated by players coming from locales such as South Korea, Scotland, Italy, Canada, Bermuda, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Florida, Wisconsin, Colorado, Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, Delaware, Maine, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Eleven players (10 plus ties) who shot 70 or better on Wednesday, and 16 (13 plus ties) who had 71 or better on Thursday advanced to the Open qualifying on Monday at Ellington Ridge CC. Others who moved on Wednesday included Andrew Gai (Westport, 69), Ryan Siegler (West Windsor, N.J., 69), Brian Hughes (Raleigh, N.C., 70), A.J. Morris (Aspen, Colo., 70), Evan Grenus (Glastonbury, 70), Patrick Casey (Goshen, 70), Timothy Hegarty (Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., 70) and Maxwell Buckley (Greenwich, 70).
Others who advanced on Thursday were Clark Robinson (South Windsor, 68), Domenico Geminiani (Lugo, Italy, 69), James Giampaolo (Torrington, 70), Evan Russell (Stowe, Vt., 70), Pat Wilson (Andover, N.J., 70), Michael Martel (New Ipswich, N.H., 70), Nick Pandelena (Atkinson, N.H., 71), Blake Morris (Hobe Sound, Fla., 71), Ricky Casko (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., 71), Peter Ballo (Stamford, 71), Michael Ballo Jr. (Stamford, 71), Jack Bauer (Portsmouth, N.H., 71), Kyle Kochevar (Glen Ellyn, Ill., 71), Matthew Lowe (Farmingdale, N.Y., 71) and Josh Salah (Gloucester, Mass., 71). The Ballo brothers are the sons of Mike Ballo, the longtime head pro at Woodway CC in Darien who won the 1969 and 1978 Connecticut Open. Mike Ballo, the older brother, is another St. John’s grad.
Chris Tallman, who will be moving from Cold Spring CC in Belchertown, Mass., to The Orchards GC in Holyoke, Mass., in a few weeks, shot 73 on Thursday when he didn’t even have to show up at the soggy course. Tallman was the Connecticut Section PGA Player of the Year for the first time in 2018, and he qualified for his Travelers Championship debut on May 21 when he won the Spring PGA Stroke Play Championship.
“Sure wasn’t the nicest day to play, but at least I got in a practice round,” Tallman said. “My goal last year was to be Player of the Year, and my goal this year was to get in the Travelers Championship. Now my next goal is to make the cut.”
Tallman will try to become the first Connecticut Section PGA player to play the final 36 holes after practice rounds Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at TPC River Highlands. He’ll be playing in the Aetna Tournament Players Pro-Am on Monday (12:30 p.m. shotgun), which will follow the opening ceremonies at 9 a.m. on the first tee. The last Section player to make the cut was Tom Sullivan of Wyantenuck CC in Great Barrington, Mass., in 1995, when the tournament was the Greater Hartford Open, won by Hall of Famer Greg Norman. Sullivan, 70, was inducted into the Northeast New York PGA Hall of Fame in march.
The 27 players who advanced Wednesday and Thursday will join 30 who were exempt from qualifying from the PGA Tour and Web.com Tour. They include PGA Tour winners Ben Crane, Brian Davis, Bae Sang-moon, Matt Betancourt, Robert Garrigus and Arjun Arwal, former Central Connecticut State University player Rob Labritz and former UConn standout Eric Dietrich of Cheshire, who qualified for the U.S. Open and missed the cut.
Play begins Monday at 8 a.m., and the low four advance to the $7.2 million Travelers Championship, which will have its best field since the insurance giant became title sponsor in 2007.
The leading players who will be shooting for a $1,296,000 first prize include No. 1 ranked Brooks Koepka, who won a second consecutive PGA Championship title in May and is shooting for a third straight U.S. Open title this weekend at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California, British Open titlist Francesco Molinari (No. 6), Justin Thomas (No. 7), Patrick Cantlay (No. 8), Bryson DeChambeau (No. 9), Tony Finau (No. 14), Paul Casey (No. 15), Jason Day (No. 16), Tommy Fleetwood (No. 18), defending champion Bubba Watson (No. 20), 2012 Travelers Championship winner Marc Leishman (No. 21), Louis Oosthuizen (No. 22), Patrick Reed (No. 23), Phil Mickelson (No. 24), Kevin Kisner (No. 27), 2017 Travelers winner Jordan Spieth and Bradley (No. 37). Mickelson is the only repeat winner (2001-2002) since the tournament began as the Insurance City Open in 1952, and Watson will be trying to match that feat and tie Billy Casper for most tournament wins (four).
Besides five of the top 10 ranked players, the field includes 16 of the top 30 and nine former champions, including late entries Russell Knox (2016), Kevin Streelman (2014), Freddie Jacobson (2011), Hunter Mahan (2007) and Fairfield native J.J. Henry (2006), the only Connecticut player to capture the title. Other notable late commitments came from Padraig Harrington, Ryan Moore, Charley Hoffman, J.B. Holmes, Max Homa, Aaron Baddeley, Sam Saunders, Brandt Snedeker, Kyle Stanley, Brian Gay, Lucas Glover, Brian Harman, Russell Henley, Nick Watney, Massachusetts native Richy Werenski and Daniel Berger, the victim of Spieth’s historic 61-foot bunker shot on the first playoff hole two years ago.
Players had until 5 p.m. Friday to commit to the 156-man field. Week-long tournament activities begin Monday with opening ceremonies (9 a.m. on first tee) and the Aetna Tournament Players Pro-Am (12:30 p.m. shotgun), and the $7.2 million championship is June 20-23. For more information on the tournament and tickets, visit www.travelerschampionship.com.