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MN Players: Constable Never Falters

HOPKINS, MN (June 24, 2009)--On Monday morning, as the first round of the 31st Players' Championship was beginning, Doug Hoffman, the MGA Tournament Director, said something to the effect that whichever high seed drew Donald Constable in the first round was going to have his hands full.

He was prophetic, except that Constable, who was seeded No. 55, was a formidable opponent not just in the opening round (he beat the No. 10 seed, Robert Bell, the MGA's 2008 Junior Player of the Year, 3&2), but throughout the tournament. He was never more than a stroke or two above par at Oak Ridge Country Club in any of the six rounds, and was as low as 5 under for 16 holes in a quarterfinal victory over the No. 2 seed, Adam Dooley.

Basically, his game never faltered despite having to play two matches a day on a difficult golf course three days in a row in trying conditions (mainly high temperatures and high humidity), and on Wednesday afternoon he got his reward: a 4&3 victory over Travis Ross in the championship match.

Ross, the No. 12 seed, grabbed a 1-up lead with a par at the third hole during the final and had a couple of chances to expand it later on the front nine. He lost one of them when he missed a 5-foot par putt at No. 5. At No. 6, a spectacular wedge shot by Constable, plus a 6-foot par putt, kept the deficit at 1 down, and then he won the next five holes in a row to take control of the match.

After bogeying the 12 hole, Constable regained his 4-up lead with a birdie at the par-5 14th, and the University of Texas junior-to-be closed out the match with a par at the 15th.

Earlier in the day, he had played a nearly perfect 18th hole and made a birdie there to defeat third-seeded Troy Johnson, the State Public Links champion and winner of last week's Mid-Players' Championship (for the 30-and-over set).

This was the second state title for Constable, who won the state Class AA high school championship three years ago, when he was a junior at Minnetonka. It also marks the third time in the 108-year history of the MGA that a left-hander has won a major state tournament.

The other two lefty champs were Rudy Juran, who won the 1928 State Amateur, and Spiro Daltas, who won the 1954 State Am. For anyone who might not be aware of it, those were both match play tournaments.

It wasn't until 1967 that the State Am switched over to stroke play. Twelve years later, in 1979, the MGA, having decided there should also be a state match play tournament, established the Players' Championship. Scott Harris won the first one, and Tom Lehman got his first state title in the 1980 Players', then repeated as champion the following year.

Constable should have a pretty good shot at duplicating Lehman's two titles in a row, considering that next year's Players' Championship is scheduled for Spring Hill GC, which is his home course.

Although he was dazzling in a couple of his matches this week (as an example, he made seven birdies against Dooley), Constable's eventual victory was more the product of consistency than anything else.

"That's something I've been working on really hard with my coach at Spring Hill (Jeff Kringen)," he said. "In the past, I've had a lot of tournaments where I had one or two good rounds, but I've had trouble putting three good ones together. So I was happy that I could play really solid golf for six rounds in a row this week."

Almost by definition, beating Troy Johnson these days means you've played solidly. Johnson was never more than a stroke over par -- and was usually well under that -- while winning five matches last week at Chaska Town Course on the way to his Mid-Players' triumph, and he was just as impressive this week in the five matches he played at Oak Ridge this week, especially in a 21-hole victory over Robbie Kelley that saw him make five birdies and only one bogey.

Against Constable, Johnson started off with five straight pars, birdied the sixth, then ran off another 10 pars in a row -- his steady play unaffected by a 1-hour-and-36-minute rain (and thunder) delay -- and arrived at the 17th tee all square. This was the first time in the tournament that Constable had to play the 17th, and he nearly four-putted the green.

"I was only 20 feet away in two," he noted, "and I wound up having to make a 5-footer for my bogey," after a power lip-out on his second putt.

At the decisive 18th, Constable hit a gorgeous drive of just over 300 yards and a pitching wedge that was "absolutely flush." It finished 5 feet from the cup, and he made the putt to secure his place in the final.

While he was in the process of ending Johnson's nine-match Mid-Players'/Players' winning streak, Ross was snapping Trent Peterson's string of 10 straight Players' victories.

The defending champion and No. 1 seed (besides the Players', Peterson also won the State Amateur last year, and was the 2008 MGA Player of the Year) took a 1-up lead on Ross with a par on the fifth hole of their semifinal. But Ross squared the match with a par at the 199-yard seventh, and he took complete control on the back nine, beginning with birdies at the 10th and 11th holes.

Ross, who will be a senior at New Mexico this fall, birdied the 14th hole, too, to go 4 up, and after Peterson countered with a birdie at the 15th, he ended the match with a birdie at the 16th, his fourth birdie in seven holes.

In the final, Constable won the first hole with a par, then lost the second and third with bogeys. He dodged a bullet when Ross missed a 5-footer for par at the fifth, but he had more problems on the par-4 sixth, after an errant drive and a second shot that was 40 yards from the green.

"I hit a flop shot straight up in the air," Constable said, "and got it to 6 feet."

From there he made the par putt to halve the hole.

"No. 6 was an important hole for me," he suggested. "I didn't win it, but I stayed 1 down, and that's a lot better than 2 down. Besides that, I hit a great shot when I really needed to."

That seemed to bolster his confidence. He won the par-3 seventh with a par to level the match. At No. 8, he nearly holed a chip shot from just in front of the green, and won the hole when Ross three-putted from about 30 feet.

"It was slower than I thought," Ross said of the putt, "and I left myself a 6-foot, sidehill slider. Just the putt you don't want to have for par on that green."

On Tuesday, in his quarterfinal victory over New Mexico teammate Jon Sauer, Ross had lost 7, 8 and 9, and the same thing happened Wednesday afternoon in the final, but the loss of the ninth hole had a slightly surreal aspect to it -- because Ross' tee shot ended up in the basket of a cart that was parked in a practice area 40 yards left of the fairway.

What happened was that Ross pulled his drive into the trees, and it ricocheted straight left, bounced once and settled in the basket of the cart. He was given relief and had a decent lie. However, in an attempt to hit a high hook with a fairway wood, and possibly reach the green, Ross didn't get the hook, and the shot went out of bounds.

"It was yesterday all over again," he lamented. "Seven, eight and nine. I can't believe it."

Fatigue may have had something to do with those lapses. After all, Ross, who was redshirted for the 2008-09 college season, didn't really play any competitive golf for 10 months, until the U.S. Amateur Public Links Qualifying last Friday in Sioux Falls (he shot 142 and won a playoff to claim the only available spot). What's more, unlike all of the other college golfers in the Players' Championship, Ross went 10 months without ever playing 36 holes in one day.

"We had four tournaments (on the Texas schedule) that had 36 holes in a day," Constable said. "So I'm used to it. But even so, this was tough. Two rounds a day for three days in a row, especially in the heat and humidity we had, wears you out."

Constable came to the 10th tee 2 up, but Ross wasn't all that worried. He'd been down going into the back nine before, and he'd played 10 through 16 in 3 under a few hours earlier in the semifinals.

Both players hit 3-woods off the tee at the 336-yard, par-4 10th. Constable nearly reached the green and wound up on a bank above the left greenside bunker. Ross was 40 yards short and to the right.

From there, he fully expected to make another birdie, but his wedge shot sailed on him, and he knocked his 40-foot birdie putt nearly off the green, then just missed the par putt, which left Constable needing only to two-putt from 8 feet for a 3-up lead.

He expanded that to 4 up by winning the 225-yard, par-3 11th with another easy two-putt par, from about 18 feet.

"Ten was the hole that really hurt," Ross said. "I just caught a little bit of a flyer with that wedge shot, and I obviously didn't realize how fast that first putt was going to be. If I could have made a birdie and gotten back to 1 down, I would have been right back in the match. Instead, I made bogey and was 3 down. I was just making too many mistakes, and he really didn't make any."

Actually, Constable did make one mistake on the back nine. It was a pushed tee shot (to the left) at the 12th. He nearly compensated for it with a nifty, punched, sliced second shot, but it caught the corner of the front left bunker, and Ross won the hole with a par.

At the 14th, Ross rattled the trees to the right of the fairway with his tee shot, yet managed to make a heroic par from 60 yards short of the green in three. He still lost the hole, though, because Constable, after a 300-yard drive and a 245-yard second shot with a rescue, pulled off another first-rate flop shot, although this one was from only about 15 yards, and converted his 5-foot putt into a birdie.

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