Fitchburg, MA —The top of the leaderboard at the 102nd Massachusetts Open Championship looks like a "who's who" of former Bay State standout amateurs.
Following the first of three rounds of play at Oak Hill Country Club, four out of the top nine scores were posted by local professionals who are hoping to capture this year's Clarence G. Cochrane Memorial Trophy and set the stage for what they hope will be something special down the road.
Leading the charge with a day-low score of 4-under par 66 is George Zolotas (Peabody, MA), who finished with five birdies and one bogie.
Swarming just one shot back at 3-under par 67 are Scott Hawley (Shrewsbury, MA), Michael Welch (Furnace Brook CC), Adam Rainaud (South Hadley, MA, Michael Ballo (Stamford, CT), Michael Quagliano (White Plains, NY), John Rainone (Saunderstown, RI), Ty Capps (Palm Coast, FL) and Eric Egloff (Sandy Spring, MD).
Bay Stater's Jason Parajeckas (Pleasant Valley CC) and Matt Parziale (Thorny Lea GC) are also part of sevent-player group that is just two shots back at 2-under par 68.
For Zolotas, a standout golfer at St. John's Prep in Danvers and then at St. John's University, today marks a turning point in his young career as he enjoyed one of his best rounds of the year.
"I tend to make a lot of birdies but I have been up and down lately," said Zolotas, who has been trying to break through on the professional golf circuit for the past three years. "Except for one bad tee ball, I was able to keep everything in front of me and was able to put it in the right spot."
Beginning his title pursuit on the more challenging back nine, Zolotas got off to a perfect start by draining a 25-foot birdie putt on the 456-yard par 5 10th hole. He then hit it close on the next few holes but had nothing but pars to show for his effort. That all changed when he drained two long putts for birdie on the 432-yard, par 4 14th and 461-yard, par 4 15th holes.
"I got into a groove where I was hitting a lot of good iron shots and putting myself in good places on the green," said Zolotas, who finished seventh at last month's Cape Cod Open. "You just want to stick with it on the back nine... as a player you want to play that back nine and get a feel for the course and where you should be hitting your shots."
The 25 year old kept it going through his final holes by making seven pars and two birdies - on the 356-yard, par 4 3rd and 462-yard, par 5 7th holes. His final birdie of the day was set up by his best shot of the round. From 200 yards out, Zolotas sent his 5 iron from the left rough to 20 feet and two putted for birdie.
"For the past few weeks, I have not gotten off to a great start," said Zolotas, who has been working on his game with local teaching professional Shawn Hester. "I met with [Hester] the other day and he wanted me to focus more on the shot rather than what I was doing swing wise, and I was trying to do that today."
It is also important to note that his putter was working well all day as he made two long par putts on the 1st and 2nd holes to keep the momentum going and allow him to keep his sights set on the coveted Massachusetts Open Championship title.
"This is always the most fun tournament I play in," said Zolotas, who had a bevy of family and friends following him today. "You always want to play well in the Massachusetts Open over the other State Opens because you know a lot more people and you are more familiar with the course. It was definitely nice to get off to a good start."
The Bay State Contingent In Contention: Looking to pull even with their fellow Bay State friend off the course and foe on the course are Hawley, Welch, Rainaud, Parajeckas and Parziale.
Hawley - who grew up just 30 miles from Fitchburg - was 4-under par through his first five holes (he made birdie on the 10th, 11th, 12th and 14th holes). Although he suffered three bogies through his next nine holes, he finished with a bang by making birdie on two of his final three holes. One year ago, Hawley held the lead at this event before eventually finishing T2.
Similar to Hawley, Welch had an up-and-down round. He made the turn at 2-over par 37 (he began his round on the 10th hole) but then enjoyed an impressive stretch of play where he made birdie on the 2nd, 5th and 6th holes and then carded an eagle on the 462-yard, par 4 7th hole. His front-nine score was a day-low 5-under par 30.
Rainaud, an assistant professional at The Orchards Golf Club, had a bumpy ride this morning as his round included six birdies, one bogey and a double bogey on the 461-yard, par 4 15th hole. Before turning pro, Rainaud was a standout player at the University of Louisville where he earned first team All-Big East honors.
Sitting in striking distance at 2-under par 68 are Parziale - the 2009 Richard D. Haskell MGA Player of the Year - and Parajeckas, who serves as an assistant golf professional at Pleasant Valley Country Club.
Those players - along with the rest of the 150-player field - will return to Oak Hill Country Club on Tuesday to compete in a second round of play. Following that round, only the 40 lowest scorers and ties or anyone within 7 strokes of the leader for the first 36 holes will continue play on Wednesday.
Battle for Low Amateur: Two-time and reigning Richard D. Haskell MGA Player of the Year Brian Higgins (Franklin CC) finds himself in a strong position following a first-round score of 1-under par 69. The 2010 New England Amateur Champion, whose best finish in this event was T11 in 2006 and 2007, is looking to recapture the title of Low Amateur which he collected in 2006.
On this day, Higgins was 2-over par through 14 holes before making birdie on three of his final four holes to grab a spot in the top 10 overall.
"It has been a struggle lately with the long game, but I held it together after hitting it awful for the first seven holes," said Higgins. "I hit it well overall the final 11 holes, made a couple of putts and a few solid up-and-down saves. Thank God for a short game lately otherwise I'd be shooting 80."
This marks the first time in three years that Higgins has been able to compete in this event. For the past two years, Higgins received an invitation to compete in the Northeast Amateur Invitational Golf Tournament, which is traditionally held during the same week as the Massachusetts Open Championship.
Only one other amateur - Chris Congdon (Foxborough CC) - was able to equal that score of 1-under par 69. Congdon was a picture of consistency with one birdie - on the 462-yard, par 4 7th hole - and 17 pars.
Higgins and Congdon should feel quite comfortable playing in a State Open... after all both are are reinstated amateurs.
News & Notables From Day 1: Here is rundown on some familiar in-state and out-of-state names competing in this year's Massachusetts Open Championship.
Michael Ballo (Stamford, CT), who is making his Massachusetts Open Championship debut this week, enjoyed a sweet introduction to the Oak Hill Country Club. On Saturday during the club-sponsored Pro-Am Tournament, Ballo fired a career best, course-record score of 8-under par 62. That tied the course record held by Jim Ruschioni, the four-time George M. Cohen MGA Senior Player of the Year and 18-time club champion at Oak Hill Country Club.
A former All-Big East and All-Northeast star at St. John's University, Ballo is no stranger to the life of a professional golfer. After all, his father Mike Ballo, Sr. was a professional golfer and served as the golf professional at Woodway Country Club (CT) for years. Mike's mother, Page, was an All-American golfer at the University of North Carolina.
On this day, the 22-year-old Ballo used that knowledge - and positive momentum from Saturday - to card a 3-under par 67. After making the turn at 1-over par 36 (he played the more difficult back nine first), he exploded for five birdies - on the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 7th and 8th holes - to move up the leaderboard.
While son Jason finds himself just two strokes off the lead, father Paul Parajeckas (Pleasant Valley CC) is proving that veterans can still make noise at this event. The 61-year-old Parajeckas, who carried his own bag through 18 holes today, is the oldest competitor in the field and currently serves as head golf professional at Pleasant Valley Country Club. He posted an even par 70 today.
Also in the mix this year are three marquee "sons" from national circles. Andy Miller (Boston, MA) - son of former PGA Tour player and current NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller - Andrew Giuliani (New York, NY) - son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani - and Olin Browne, Jr. (Tequesta, FL) - son of current Champions Tour star Olin Browne - are all in the field for the first time.
Giuliani, who was co-medalist at the Bay Club at Mattapoisett last month - is still in the hunt following an even par 70 this morning. Miller posted a 2-over par 72, while Browne is at 3-over par 73. After finishing as first alternate at qualifying, Browne learned that he had earned a spot in this year's Championship Proper on Friday.
Andy Morse (West Roxbury, MA), who is T9 after carding a 1-under par 69, is hoping to capture a third Massachusetts Open Championship title. If successful, Morse would become the first competitor to win this title twice at Oak Hill Country Club. He claimed his first title in 1989 in Fitchburg when he defeated John Paesani in a playoff. His second title came three years later.
Shot of the Day: During the afternoon hours, Brian Smith (Nashawtuc CC) scored the shot of the day. He carded a hole in one on the 194-yard, par 3 13th hole. That was a huge help as he went on to post a score of 2-over par 72.
When not competing in MGA and NEPGA events, Smith serves as an assistant golf professional at Nashawtuc Country Club.
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