By Bruce Berlet

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. – On a beautiful day for most any outdoor activity, playing partners Fran Marrello and Chris Tallman thoroughly enjoyed the first round of the $20,000 Connecticut PGA Professional Championship at Wampanoag Country Club on Monday.

The twosome combined for two eagles and eight birdies in shooting a best-ball, 9-under-par 63 on the way to the top of the leaderboard. Marrello, 66, winner of a record 24 Connecticut Section PGA individual titles, nine more than runner-up Adam Rainaud, holed a 60-foot chip for eagle 3 at the 12th hole to highlight a 4-under 68 for a one-stroke lead over Tallman, who also had an eagle 3.

“I’ve been playing OK, but nothing has been happening,” Marrello said. “Last week at Manchester (Country Club), I hit 17 greens in regulation and made 18 pars. Just disgusting. But I felt good starting out today because I’d had a couple of decent rounds after that and played really well.”

Marrello started with a 10-foot birdie putt at the first hole but missed a 4-footer for par at No. 2. He two-putted the par-5 fourth hole for birdie and then parred out for a 1-under 35 on the front nine. He chipped to 4 feet to set up a birdie at the par-5 11th hole before a drive, 3-wood shot and 60-foot chip gave him the eagle at No. 12. He missed a 4-foot par putt at the difficult par-3 13th hole but hit an 8-iron to 18 inches for a tap-in birdie at No. 17.

Marrello is a PGA Life Member and a member of Section PGA Hall of Fame and Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame. He has been Section Player of the Year seven times and Senior Player of the Year a record nine times, but this is the only major Section event that he hasn’t won. Is he more inspired to end that drought?

“Not really,” Marrello said. “Not winning the Connecticut Open and State Amateur was more heartbreaking.”

But Marrello has played in 27 PGA of America national championships (17 Club Professional Championships and 10 Senior CPCs), nine Travelers Championships and 14 major championships, including six U.S. Opens, two U.S. Senior Opens, one PGA Championship, two PGA Senior Championships and three U.S. Amateurs. And Marrello and Darrell Kestner of the Metropolitan PGA Section (N.Y.) are the only club professionals to have played in a major championship in five different decades.

Tallman, in his second season as general manager at The Orchards GC in South Hadley, Mass., hit the ball as well as anyone in the 50-man field but three-putted three times for his only bogeys.

“I had a tough time with the speed of the greens, and all my bogeys were lip-outs or horseshoes,” Tallman said. “But I played fantastic and just being out here is awesome after all that everyone has gone through with the pandemic. It has been such a crazy year and a challenge, for sure, because I’m involved with every department at the club and they all have different guidelines.

“It’s been a daily endeavor, and it’s been a little tough concentrating when I’ve played. Everything has been a little bit off, but today I put together a really good round except for the three-putts.”

Tallman started with a three-putt but hit an 8-iron approach to 3 feet for birdie at the second hole. He parred out for 35 on the front nine and then hit a drive and 6-iron to 8 feet and made the putt for eagle at No. 12. Another three-putt produced a bogey at the 13th hole, but he sank a 40-footer for birdie at No. 14.

“That kind of made up for one of the three-putts,” Tallman said with a smile.

A 9-iron to 18 inches set up a birdie at the 17th hole that matched Marrello’s 3 and set them up to play together again in the final round on Tuesday at 10:50 AM with Bob Mucha, who is tied for third with C.J. Konkowski and Jan Wivestad, the only other players to break par.

Tallman was the 2018 Section Player of the Year and finished second to Kyle Bilodeau in 2019, when he won the Stroke Play Championship to earn his only berth in the Travelers Championship. He also won this event in 2018 and the 2019 Connecticut PGA Championship.

Mucha, the 2000 champion from Edgewood Golf Course in Southwick, Mass., didn’t have much chance to prepare for the tournament because he was helping clean up extensive damage to the course caused by a tornado that struck two weeks ago.

“It took out huge trees, and we lost the irrigation system so the only thing that’s green now are the greens,” Mucha said. “We’re spending $60,000 on tree removal and will be starting a $100,000 restoration project next week that will include slice-seeding the entire course from tees to greens.”

Despite limited preparation, the 57-year-old Mucha hit 12 of 14 fairways and 17 of 18 greens in regulation, with the only one that he missed being an approach that went over the 15th green and led to a double-bogey 6.

“I played really solid but didn’t take advantage of the par-5s,” Mucha said. “I can’t hit the par-5s in two (shots) any more, but I got right in front of most of the greens but wasn’t in good position to go at the pins. I played conservative, I’m not much of a gambler, because it’s 36 holes and I didn’t want to do anything to knock myself out of it.”

After a three-putt bogey at the fourth hole, Mucha hit a 7-iron approach to 2 inches and a wedge to 10 feet for birdies at Nos. 5 and 7. He nearly holed a chip for eagle at the par-5 12th hole and rallied from the double bogey with an 8-iron to 8 feet for a birdie at No. 17.

Despite slicing his drive into a pond that led to a double-bogey 6 at the 18th hole, Konkowski was happy with his ball-striking in his tournament debut.

“My game has been here and there, but I just tried to focus on the mental side and not beat myself up because I haven’t played much,” Konkowski said. “I’m trying just to focus on a target and the feel with my putting. I’m not focused on outcomes, just deal with what comes.”

Konkowski, 24, is in his first year at Hartford Golf Club after a stint at Keene (N.H.) Country Club in the town where he grew up. He nearly qualified for the PGA of America Assistants Championship on Nov. 12-15 at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla., but he finished fourth in the Section event and is second alternate.

Wivestad, from Crestbrook Park GC in Watertown, was the steadiest player in the field, making 15 pars, one bogey at the sixth hole and birdies at Nos. 15 and 18, the latter a rarity.

Adam D’Amario (Indian Hill CC-Newington) and Philip Krick Jr. (Mohegan Sun GC-Baltic) are tied for sixth at 72.

The winner earns $4,000 and 100 OMEGA Player of the Year points, and the top three finishers get berths in the 54th PGA Professional Championship at PGA Golf Club in Florida on April 25-28, 2021. The Section Player of the Year also earns an exemption to the national event, but if he finishes in the top three, the first alternate goes to Port St. Lucie.

The tournament is presented by Club Car and OMEGA. Supporting sponsors are Titleist/FootJoy, NIKE and TaylorMade. Presenting partners are Golf Channel and the PGA Tour. The 41 section championships and the national tournament offer a combined purse of more than $1.5 million.