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Mass. Open: Amateur shares lead

FITCHBURG, Mass. -- He not only looks like a professional golfer, but he also plays like one.

Brian Higgins (Franklin CC), an amateur from Bellingham who is known for wearing long pants regardless of the weather, is giving the pro-dominated field a run for their money this week at the 102nd Massachusetts Open Championship.

On Tuesday afternoon, Higgins fired a day-low score of 3-under par 67 at Oak Hill Country Club to to grab hold of the overall lead.

Through two rounds of play, Higgins and touring players Kyle Gallo (Kensington, CT) and Mike Welch (Furnace Brook GC) hold the top spot with a two-round total of 4-under par 136.

If successful during the third and final round on Wednesday, Higgins will become the first amateur since 1999 to win the the Massachusetts Open Championship. It would be another feather in the cap of Higgins, who is a two-time and reigning Richard D. Haskell MGA Player of the Year. Just one year ago, Higgins proved that he is one of the most dominating and consistent amateurs in the region when he won the 2010 New England Amateur Championship.

"To win this title would be the biggest win in my career," said Higgins, who is also a two-time Massachusetts Mid-Amateur Champion. "It may be even bigger than the New England Amateur win only because of the strong field."

While many of the career professional players retire to the driving range or putting green following their rounds, Higgins - like many of the amateurs - must put his clubs away for the day and return to his office and then back home to help care for his three children.

Perhaps his success is a result of his competitive drive or maybe it has something to do with his brief experience as a professional back in the late 1990s. Regardless, Higgins has never used that as a crutch and feels that he has a real chance to capture what would be his fourth career MGA Championship.

"I will either be in the lead or a couple of shots back and either is fine with me," said Higgins, who was reinstated as an amateur in 2000. "It will give me a chance to win and that is all that you want at this stage of the tournament."

Following a tough first six holes on Monday where he found himself 1-over par, Higgins made some key adjustments to his swing. Instead of a cut, he began to fade the ball more and the positive results were realized almost immediately. He played 5-under par golf through his next 20 holes to move into contention.

"For me it's a matter of eliminating half of the golf course," said Higgins. "I made the change yesterday to get away from hooking the ball. I hit it well down the stretch yesterday and was just looking to maintain that play today."

He did just that.

On the front nine, he carded birdies on the 3rd, 6th and 9th holes and made just one bogey to make the turn at 2-under par 33. A key point in his round came on the 169-yard, par 3 8th hole when he sent his birdie putt seven feet past the hole. He managed to sink the curling par putt coming back.

"Had I not made that putt I could have had a bad attitude and probably would not have birdied 9," said Higgins. "It really kept my round going and continued the positive momentum."

On the more challenging and dangerous back nine, Higgins managed his game to perfection. He made a solid par on the 456-yard, par 5 10th hole and then drove his tee shot on the 11th hole onto the 10th fairway in order to give himself a better look at the hole. He then sent his 9 iron approach to two feet for his fourth birdie of the day.

Although he suffered an uncharacteristic three putt on the 16th hole for bogey, he drew cheers from the gallery on the 446-yard, par 4 18th hole when he drained a 20-foot downhill birdie putt.

"That three putt on 16 was disappointing, but I wanted to put that behind me and finish strong," said Higgins. "That birdie on 18 was lucky, but it was sure a nice way to finish."

Higgins will be paired on Wednesday with Gallo, who carded four birdies and one bogey this morning. He is a seasoned veteran who has won four Cape Cod Open titles over the course of his career. Welch, who like Higgins is a former New England Amateur Champion, followed up his first-round score of 3-under par 67 with a solid 1-under par 69 this afternoon.

Those three players will have a tough road ahead of them as a strong group of four players - Mark Stevens (Concord, NH), Michael Ballo (Stamford, CT), Ty Capps (Palm Coast, FL) and Adam Rainaud (South Hadley, MA) - are just one stroke back at 3-under par 137

"I am going to stick with the same game plan tomorrow," said Higgins. "I need to stay focused and take it one shot at a time. Most of my grief comes when I start getting ahead of myself."

While Higgins enjoyed good times on the back nine today, it was not so kind to others in the field. Day-one leader George Zolotas (Peabody, MA) suffered three bogies and two double bogies on that back nine today en route to a score of 5-over par 75. He stands T19 overall.

Back Nine of the Day - Conquering the 18th Hole

Not only did Nick Little (Crozet, VA) make the cut with a two-round total of 1-under par 139, he also posted the best back-nine score of the tournament.

As described by Oak Hill Country Club President Henry St. Cyr, the club's back nine - which was originally designed by Donald Ross - is more challenging as the holes get progressively long and narrower with woods on both sides. On this day, Little was able to conquer that daunting back nine by carding four birdies and zero bogies en route to a score of 4-under par 31. He made birdie on the 10th, 13th, 14th and 18th holes.

The final birdie on that side - on the 446-yard, par 4 finishing hole - was particularly impressive given that it is the hardest hole on the course. Only 16 birdies have been recorded on the hole by the 150-player field through two days.

In fact, the 18th hole was named "Most Challenging Finishing Hole" in MassGolfer magazine's Spring 1992 issue based on more than 100 responses to a survey issued to both amateur and professional qualifiers from the 1990 Massachusetts Amateur Championship and 1990 Massachusetts Open Championship.

Fun Open Facts... That You Might Not Know: Oak Hill President Henry St. Cyr - who has been on site all week serving as one of the three MGA Officials in Charge - was the caddie for 48-year-old Ted Bishop in 1961 when Bishop captured a memorable Massachusetts Amateur Championship here in Fitchburg. Sixteen years earlier, Bishop enjoyed a season in which he won the Massachusetts Amateur Championship, New England Amateur Championship and U.S. Amateur Championship.

St. Cyr recalled that his pay for the week of work was $35. Fast forward 50 years and the winner of this championship will receive a check for $15,000 as part of a $75,000 total professional purse

Other than Higgins and Gallo, only two other players in the field equalled the day-low score of 3-under par 67 today. John Hickson (Topsham, ME) moved into the top 10 following his first-round score of 1-over par 71, while amateur Mike Dunham (Concord CC) leaped over the cut line and bettered his round-one score by seven strokes.

Dunham, a former NHL netminder, made six birdies this afternoon and is one of just four amateurs to make this year's cut. Other amateurs who will return on Wednesday are Chris Congdon (Foxborough CC) and Brendan Hester (Pleasant Valley CC).

Congdon, a reinstated amateur like Higgins, posted back-to-back scores of 1-under par 69 to stand T8 overall, while Hester is the 2001 Massachusetts Amateur Champion who advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2005 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship.

What's a Cut Line: This year's starting field of 150 competitors was trimmed to just 46 following the conclusion of play on Tuesday. Each year, the 40 lowest scorers and ties or anyone within seven strokes of the leader for the first 36 holes continue on to the third and final day.

By definition, a "cut line" in golf is defined as the score that represents the dividing point between golfers who continue playing and those who are cut from the field in a golf tournament.

Spectators and players alike spent most of the day watching the projected cut line bounce up and down as 9-hole splits and final scores were posted on the MGA's web site.

One year ago, a total of 41 competitors advanced to the final round. All professional players who make the cut earn a paycheck with the winner taking home a check for $15,000. This year's cut line fell at 3-over par 143.

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