(Duke Athletics Photo)
Williamstown, MA — What began as a field of 144 was trimmed to just 32 following the stroke play portion of the 108th Massachusetts Amateur Championship, which is being held this week at Taconic Golf Club.
Those 32 competitors advanced through the 36-hole qualifying stage and will now look forward to the start of match play on Wednesday beginning at 8:00 a.m. This year's cut line fell at 5-over par 147 with the final six spots being decided in a nine-for-six sudden-death playoff on Tuesday evening.
Weather permitting, the first two rounds of match play - round of 32 and round of 16 - will be contested on Wednesday in Williamstown. The quarterfinals and semifinals will take place on Thursday with the finale coming on Friday when the last two competitors standing will compete in a 36-hole final match.
There seemed to be little doubt about whose names would appear at the top of the leaderboard. After all, from their first tee shots on Monday, Peter French (Maplegate CC) and Jake Shuman (Blue Hill CC) played like men on a mission.
For French, this year marks his final MGA Amateur Championship appearance (he plans to turn pro later this year), while Shuman is looking to continue what was a breakout sophomore season at Duke University this past spring.
The longtime friends were paired together for two days and matched each other shot for shot. In the end, French and Shuman claimed co-medalist honors with two-round scores of 3-under par 139.
“It was nice,” said French, who delivered an even par 71 performance on Tuesday. “Every year I am worried about getting a good seed and playing solid the first two days and figuring out the golf course. My plan is to just continue to do what I am doing and play solid golf. If you wind up being medalist, that is how it goes but playing solid is what it’s all about.”
French has a strong history in this event. In the past four years, he has advanced to the round of 32 (2012, 2014) and finished as a quarterfinalist (2013) and a semifinalist (2015).
“I was able to get off to a good start in the last two rounds,” said French, a recent graduate of Johnson & Wales University (FL). “For the past two days, Jake and I just fed off of each other. Today I was just worried about playing solid and doing the same thing I was doing yesterday.”
On this day, Shuman was coming off a Monday performance where he set a new Taconic GC course record of 7-under par 64. On day two he carded a 4-over par 75.
“You have to get through stroke play to get to match play so that was the first step in the process,” said Shuman. “Obviously I didn’t play the best I could play today. I wouldn’t even say that I played average. I played poorly, but at the same time all I needed to do was be in the top 32. It doesn’t matter what seed you are. Anybody can beat anybody at this point.”
The last time co-medalists were crowned at this event was in 2013 (Andy Drohen & Colin Brennan). The last time that a medalist went on to win the championship was 2015 (Nick McLaughlin).
“If you are medalist or 32nd, both people are playing tomorrow,” said Shuman. “Whether one of us is [seeded] one or two or two or one it is just a matter of what time we play and that’s it. We still have to go out with the same goal of beating of whomever we are both playing tomorrow.”
McNeill & The Fountain of Youth
While this year's match play field features a host of young and emerging Bay State talent, there are also those who have clearly found their own fountain of youth.
John McNeill (BAGS) is one of them. He is a 54-year-old associate department head and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) who plays his golf out of the Boston Amateur Golf Society.
He spends the fall and winter months teaching courses called Microelectronics. He carries his own golf bag. Instead of hitting the range or putting green after a round he finds a way to work in a local show around his tournament schedule.
Last year, McNeill bolted out of Oak Hill Country Club following the second round of play because he and his wife had U2 tickets in Boston. McNeill returned to Fitchburg the following day to compete in his round 32 match.
This time around, McNeill had yet another reason to play well the first two days. “I had to play well because my wife and I are going to a show down in Lenox,” said McNeill. “It’s a Shakespeare thing, so it won’t go until midnight though.”
McNeill made sure that he would not have to return on Tuesday evening for a playoff as he capped off his second straight round of 1-over par 72 in the early afternoon hours. It marks his second straight appearance in match play. Last year he advanced to the round of 16.
“I was able to drive it into the fairway most of the time and keep it out of trouble,” said McNeill. “I am not sure that will work in match play, but who knows. I am playing another day so that is all that matters.”
McNeill first made headlines in 2007 when he advanced to the quarterfinals of this event. On his road to the quarterfinals at Concord Country Club, he defeated the likes of Adam Rainaud – who is now a two-time PGA Match Play Champion (2015, 2016) – and current MGA President Tom Bagley before falling to two-time champion Frank Vana, Jr. (Marlborough CC).
With nine more years under his belt, McNeill seems to relish the challenge of taking on the younger generation of players.
“First they will ask me who I am caddying for,” said McNeill. “Then they will note that my putter is older than they are. One nice thing is when you have a kid hitting it 30 yards past you, it does mean that I am hitting the first approach. So if I hit it close I can put a little pressure on them. I am just happy to be out here playing and not working.”
Regardless of what happens on Wednesday, there is no question that McNeill will have enjoyed his experience and his time in Williamstown.
“It’s a fun week,” said McNeill. “It’s a fabulous course in flawless condition and great people to play with. The weather is beautiful it is just a great week.”
A Welcome Role Reversal for Mark Turner
One year ago, Mark Turner (Bass Rocks GC) was the one looking in from the outside. That is not the case this year.
After failing to advance to match play following the first 36 holes of stroke play in 2015, the 16-year-old Turner returned to the host site on day three but on that day he was serving as a caddy for his brother James, who had advanced to the round of 32.
Fast forward one year and Mark will have his time to shine when he makes his first career appearance in match play.
“It feels good to be like him now,” said James, who is a rising senior at St. John’s Prep in Danvers. “It’s good to get in this year.”
Turner followed up his day-one score of even par 71 with a 2-under par 69 to finish at 2-under par 140. His Tuesday round was fueled by a back-nine score of 3-under par 33 on what is considered to be the tougher of the nines at Taconic GC.
“I had it going pretty even through the first six,” said Turner, who began his round on the 10th hole. “I would say the toughest three holes of the course I finished birdie, birdie, birdie on 16, 17 and 18.”
During that critical stretch of holes, Turner rolled in 10-foot birdie putts on the 16th and 17th holes and then sent his approach to inches on the 545-yard, par 5 18th hole.
“I just got out and hit it better than I thought I would,” said Turner, who resides in Gloucester. “I was hitting off the center of the face and it felt good.”
Later this month, Turner will travel south to compete at the 2016 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship being held at the Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tennessee from July 18-23.
Before he takes on the nation’s top juniors, Turner will focus his attention on match play at the state title at hand.
“It is a great accomplishment and should be fun for the next few days hopefully,” said Turner.
A Two Days to Remember for 14-Year-Old O'Donnell
Jack O’Donnell (TPC Boston) has enjoyed every moment of his first-ever Massachusetts Amateur Championship. O’Donnell is 14 years old and was the youngest competitor to compete at this year’s Championship Proper. He is also the youngest competitor to advance to match play. He survived the nine-for-six playoff by making birdie on the first playoff hole.
O'Donnell's journey to this point began back on June 6 when he earned a spot in Championship Proper at a qualifier held at Wianno Club. Following a 4-over par 75 on Monday, O’Donnell rebounded with a 1-over par 72 to finish on the cut line with a two-day score of 5-over par 147.
“I am happy,” said O’Donnell, winner of the boys division at the 2014 Massachusetts Junior Amateur Championship. “It is my first Mass Am. I am pretty pumped.”
Despite the challenges that Taconic GC presented to competitors, O’Donnell was able to manage his game and has a chance to become the youngest champion in the event’s 108-year storied history. The youngest players to win this title are Ted Adams (1939) and James Driscoll (1996), who were both 18 years old.
O’Donnell will turn 15 years old in September.
“I love Taconic,” said O’Donnell. “It wasn’t that long. There were a few long holes, but for the most part it wasn’t that bad and the greens were really good too.”
And his thoughts on his first major MGA thus far.
“It has been a lot of fun,” said O’Donnell. “I am happy that I did so well.”
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