By Bruce Berlet

BLOOMFIELD, Conn. (September 21, 2020) – After nearly hitting himself in the face with a ricocheted bunker shot on the first hole, Chris Tallman didn’t think he was going to shoot a 3-under-par 67 in the first round of the 89th Connecticut PGA Championship on Monday.

But after surviving the scary moment, Tallman managed to salvage a bogey 5, made eagle 3 at the fourth hole and added two birdies in taking a three-stroke lead over Brian Keiser and William Street heading into the final round Tuesday at Wintonbury Hills Golf Course.

“It’s the closest I came to hitting myself,” said Tallman, the general manager at The Orchards Golf Club in South Hadley, Mass. “My second shot ended up under the lip of the bunker, and my first bunker shot ricocheted back and just missed me. But I hit my fourth shot to six feet and made the putt for a bogey.”

Tallman, shooting for a third consecutive Connecticut Section PGA win, then hit 14 of the last 17 greens in regulation in his first look at the course designed by renowned golf course architect Pete Dye, who also renovated the Edgewood Golf Club public course in Cromwell that is now TPC River Highlands, home of the Travelers Championship. It was an especially strong showing by Tallman with winds gusting to 10-15 mph after play was delayed for 30 minutes because of frost caused by temperatures in the 40s.

“I hit the ball really well, especially off the tee, and had a lot of good iron shots that gave me a lot of birdie chances,” Tallman said. “I’d never seen the course before today, but it’s a typical Pete Dye course where you don’t want to short-side yourself, so I just tried to find good spots on the green.”

Tallman rebounded from his unusual start with a drive and 4-iron to 25 feet at the fourth hole that set up his eagle 3. He also birdied the par-5 eighth hole thanks to a chip from in front of the green to 5 feet. After making his best save with a 5-foot putt at the par-3 12th hole, he two-putted the par-5 13th hole from 35 feet for his second birdie. He hit his tee shot on the difficult 17th hole into a bunker, but unlike at No. 1, he blasted to 12 inches for a tap-in par 3.

“I’m pretty happy,” Tallman said. “I would like to have made a few more putts, but the goal was staying in it.”

The only sub-par round in the 45-man field put Tallman in good position to win another Player of the Year (POY) after he finished first and second in 2018 and 2019. And he won his two previous starts, the Section Championship and the Pro-Veteran in which he played an inspiring round with four military personnel.

“Obviously, Player of the Year is in the back of my mind,” Tallman said. “I think I’ll have a good chance if I play well here and in the Match Play Championship.”

Tallman leads the POY standings with 262.50 points, followed by Street (185.17) and eight-time POY Fran Marrello, a PGA Life Member (174.67). Bob Mucha of Edgewood GC in Southwick, Mass., leads the Senior POY standings with 250 points, followed by Jan Wivestad of Crestbrook GC in Watertown (227) and Marrello (203). The winner Tuesday receives $4,000 from a $19,625 purse and 75 POY points. The final event of the COVID-19 season to determine the POY is the Match Play Championship on Oct. 5-7, at Pequabuck Golf Club in Bristol.

Keiser and Street also shot 2-under 33 on the front nine and might have had the lead if not for balky putters. Keiser, from Longmeadow (Mass.) Country Club, actually had more putts (36) than strokes (34) for the first time in his career. He was tied for the lead at 3-under with two holes to go but four-putted No. 17 from 45 feet for double-bogey 5, twice lipping out from 3 feet, and three-putted No. 18 from 20 feet, again missing a 3-footer.

“I took my normal putter out of the bag for a change, but it wasn’t the new putter, it was me,” said Keiser, who won the Connecticut PGA Professional Championship at Wintonbury Hills in 2010. “I hit it really well right at the flag and hit it close a lot of times but just couldn’t get the putts in.”

Keiser hit a wedge to 3 feet for birdie at the second hole, and after three-putting No. 4 for par, he made a 6-foot putt to save par at No. 5 and hit a wedge to 4 feet for birdie at No. 6. A chip to 15 feet set up a birdie at the eighth hole, but he hit into a bunker at the par-3 ninth and made bogey.

Keiser got back to 3 under with a 7-iron approach to 5 feet at the 11th hole. He three-putted again for a par 5 at No. 13 before the disheartening seven putts on the final two holes.

“The disappointing thing is making 6-to-8-foot putts is usually the best part of my game,” Keiser said.

Street, from Whitney Farms GC in Monroe, hit 16 greens in regulation, also liked his ball-striking but not his work on the firm, wind-blown greens.

“I’m ecstatic with the way I hit the ball, but I missed a couple of good birdie chances that cost me the lead,” said Street, who finished third last year after leading after the first round. “I was just a hair off on my reads and lipped out on five of the last six holes, but (playing partner) Kevin (Mahaffy) said they’ll all go in tomorrow.”

Street two-putted the fourth hole for birdie and hit a 6-iron into the wind to 12 feet for a rare birdie at the par-3 ninth. He missed the green and made bogey at the 11th hole, three-putted No. 13 for par and then hit his tee shot over the green and bogeyed No. 17.

C.J. Konkowski (Hartford GC) and Jordan Gosler (Manchester CC) are tied fourth at 71, one ahead of Mike Strong (TPC River Highlands). Mucha is tied for eighth at 74, one ahead of Marrello.

Zac Stennett (Twin Hills CC-Hebron) made eagle 3 at No. 8 to become the only player to reach 4-under. But he made double-bogey 5 at the ninth hole to turn in 33, then made a triple-bogey 6 at No. 12 and five bogeys in a back-nine 43 for 76 and a tie for 17th.

“I just swept under the ball on No. 9 and couldn’t stop the rest of the way,” Stennett said.

Play begins Tuesday at 8 a.m., and Tallman, Keiser and Street will be in the final round at 10:20.