Gilliam wins Travis Invitational

GARDEN CITY, New York (May 22, 2011) -- With more hair-raising, last second escapes than a James Bond double-feature, Florida’s Nick Gilliam won the 101st Travis Invitational at fabled Garden City Golf Club, defeating Kevin Gai 3&2 after trailing well into the back nine, then turning the tables on Steve White by winning the final two holes en route to a 1-up victory. The win was the former Florida Gators star’s first since recently being re-instated as an amateur after an eight year run on the Hooters Tour.He also became the second consecutive Travis rookie to win the title and broke a string of three-consecutive medalists who lost in the match play. Greg Kennedy won the 2007 Travis Invitational after also taking home medalist honors.

Talk about a summer blockbuster! Just as every time Blofeld or Mr. Big or Dr. No left Bond to die by alligators, laser beams, or man eating sharks, so too did Eoin O’Connor, Gai, and White have Gilliam one mistake away from elimination. Yet handling his golf clubs like they were gadgets from Q, Gilliam did his best 007 imitation, engineering one magical resurrection after another.

***Insert clipped British voice of Desmond Llewellyn ***

“Now pay attention everyone. This 215 yard 4-iron out of the wet, heavy rough will carry that water hazard, arc gently to the left, catch the basin in the green, and trickle next to the pin, before self-destructing and leaving nothing behind but a refreshing pine scent.”

Actually Gilliam’s escapes were better than that. He trailed the entire final. He never led until he seized the match on the 18th green. An early birdie by White and a bogey on seven by Gilliam put the Gator 2-down, but then White hooked a short iron on eight and the lead dwindled back to one.

“Match play golf is a game of momentum. When you get to 2-up, you have to get to 3-up and then to 4-up. You never leave a guy hanging around,” White observed. “And every time I put pressure on Nick, he responded.”

But the plucky White ratcheted the pressure up again, this time with a birdie at 11 to build the lead back to 2-up. The advantage held until White drove it in the wrong fairway bunker on 14, a horrifying pit as narrow and deep as a barrel, “not even big enough for the proverbial angry man and his club,” quipped one fellow competitor. He had to chip out sideway and the subsequent bogey whittled the lead back to 1-up.

They halved the mighty 15th with a pair of brilliant pars – scrambling from greenside at the fastest, most severely canted green on the course – then halved 16 with routine pars, setting the stage for Gilliam’s late reversal.

White drove into the rough and mounds left of the 17th fairway and couldn’t match Gilliam’s two-putt birdie. With the match now tied, the 6’5” Gilliam hit the front of the green with 7-iron, but faced a difficult two-putt up hill to a back pin placement. White hit his tee shot much closer – perhaps 15 feet – but left of the pin and on the wrong side of a fold in the green. Gilliam made his two-putt, leaving the stage to White.

“I had to die it at the crest of the hill and let it trickle down, but I pulled it and hit it too hard,” he recalled.

The putt zigged when he wanted it to zag. Instead of dying on the crest, it took a sharp left and followed the contours of the hill, veering away to appoint about 12 feet from the hole. When White missed the comebacker, Gilliam was champion.

“It’s such a thrill to come here and see all the history and the great character of the club,” the gracious Giliam told the gallery after the round. “I fell in love with the golf course because every time I play it I have a different favorite hole, but I’ve fallen in love with the club because of the people. They all love golf, and everyone who loves golf can be grateful for Garden City.”

The tall, slim, soft-spoken Gilliam proved a popular champion as well, to competitors and members alike. Kevin Hammer, a regular on the amateur circuit and a fellow Florida Gator, predicted pre-tournament that Gilliam would be a factor. Tournament chair Pat Fogerty was so equally impressed that he mentioned him as a rookie to keep a close eye on. And co-medalist Hans Albertsson cheered Gilliam’s victory as well.

“I told him, ‘what a great re-introduction to the amateur ranks,’” he said in a congratulatory message.

Gilliam’s roller-coaster ride to the title highlights one of the great aspects of Garden City – how the fortunes of a match change from shot to shot. You can be in the cat bird’s seat in the fairway, and with one misplayed shot, be at a crushing disadvantage greenside.

“Matches can swing two holes in one shot – you can go from a chance at 3-up to only 1-up with all you momentum gone, but that’s why Garden City has stood the test of time,” explained White.

“You have to be patient and play one shot at a time,” agreed Gilliam. “You have to resist the temptation to be overly aggressive, moreso at Garden City. But that’s one of the reasons this course has been so great for 111 years.

Of course the other reason is the people. Everyone, from PGA Head Pro Bob Rittenger and his stalwart pro shop staff, to the rest of the club staff – the sturdy backbone of the club – Rene and Nelson in the locker room, Bob and Henry slingin’ drinks and jokes…

***Insert Bob’s voice: “Where’d he go? Did he fall in the bunker?!”***

…to each and every open-hearted member who is only too happy to sacrifice the club for one week for a chance to meet some more great golf lovers. They truly are the Grand Old Club and the tournament truly is The Grand Old Amateur. Get ready for the next great 111 years and then some.

And so as the sun sets and the train rumbles to take us home to whatever our destination is, Garden City shimmers like a mirage before our eyes, gleaming with prismatic, iridescent light, before disappearing into the mists to re-materialize like the reverie she is next spring, a rebirth in not only our golf lives but our hearts.

Meanwhile Nick Gilliam will return home to a hero’s welcome, Schenectady Putter and Waterford crystal trophy in hand.

Remember Live and Let Die? It was one of Mr. Big’s minions – a hook-armed thug named “Tee-Hee” – who told James Bond, “there are two ways to disable an alligator. One is to take a pencil and jam it in the pressure hole behind its eyes. The second is twice as simple. You just stick your hand in its mouth, and pull his teeth out,” as he left him to die on an island full of the hungry reptiles.

Well this Gator sure proved hard to kill. So much so that he is a match for anyone, even for a guy with a license like James Bond.

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