Great Barrington, MA (July 15, 2011) -- One week ago, Ryan Riley (Norton CC) packed up his family and made the trek to the Berkshires. His hope was to have a fun week and - while he was there - sprinkle in some golf. In the end, it turned into a family vacation that he will never forget.
Under beautiful skies at Wyantenuck Country Club on Friday, Riley outlasted Frank Vana, Jr. (Marlborough CC) to capture the 103rd Massachusetts Amateur Championship by a score 4 & 3. In fitting fashion, Riley chipped in from the right bunker on the 33rd hole to end the match. In total, he made 10 birdies in 33 holes on Friday.
"This is the culmination of everything that I have been doing for 10 years," said Riley. "It gives me some affirmation that all of the hard work from the last few years in swing changes and preparation has paid off."
For Riley, 30, this marks his fifth career MGA Championship. He has won three straight Massachusetts Four-Ball Championships (2009, 2010, 2011) and one Massachusetts Amateur Public Links Championship (2009).
This journey began unassumingly last Saturday when he arrived in Great Barrington with his wife, two young children and parents.
During the first two days of stroke play, Riley spent half of the day playing golf and the other half exploring the area with his family.
Given his impressive playing resume, it was no surprise that he grew a special affinity for this course and went on to qualify for Match Play following two rounds of stroke play.
"I have played a lot of golf and there are always a couple of holes that you don't like but that is not the case here," said Riley. "I felt like I could pull off any shot out there which doesn't happen a lot."
Beginning on Wednesday morning, however, Riley - as a 10th seed - methodically made his way through the bottom half of the match play bracket. He defeated formidable foes such as Brenden Beeg (Vineyard GC), two-time and defending champion John Hadges (Thorny Lea GC), Dan White (Vesper CC) and then Antonio Grillo (Farm Neck GC) in the semifinals.
By Friday morning, he had earned a chance to take on Vana, the two-time winner of this event (in 2004 and 2005) and nine-time Richard D. Haskell MGA Player of the Year. One day earlier, Vana outlasted Dan Falcucci (Cyprian Keyes GC) by 19 Holes in the semifinals to earn his sixth appearance in the finals in the past nine years.
While his children played in the clubhouse and with his wife serving as his caddy for most the round, Riley was nothing short of spectacular as he gained a 6 Up advantage through 10 holes and never looked back.
"I was a little surprised," said Riley of Vana's poor start. "But a lot of the bite on this golf course is right out of the gates. I hit a lot of good shots early on and Frank hit some bad ones and that set the tone."
During that critical beginning stretch, Riley played 2-under par golf and Vana suffered his worst start of the tournament which included bogies on the first four holes.
"I dug myself a deep hole out of the gate," said Vana. "Ryan was playing well and I was a little shaky. He played solid and wasn't in much trouble. At some point you have to apply pressure and at points I was not doing that."
Just when the match looked as if it was going to be one-sided, Vana began to chip away at the lead beginning on the 11th hole when he matched Riley's long birdie putt by sinking a 12 footer. The players both made par on the next hole and then Vana made birdie on the next three holes to draw within three heading to the 16th hole.
Here is how it happened.
First, on the 14th hole, Vana drained an 8-foot birdie putt. On the next hole - the 389-yard, par 4 15th hole - he sent his wedge approach from 84 yards out to six feet.
The level of play continued to rise as the players matched each other shot-for-shot. On the 435-yard, par 4 16th hole, their drives landed five feet from each other on the fairway. Riley was up first and sent a beautiful approach that landed four feet from the hole. Vana followed with an iron shot that dropped six feet from the hole. Both players made birdie to halve the hole.
On the always interesting 401-yard, par 4 17th hole, the players reached the green in two. Riley was first up and somehow found the bottom of the hole with a treacherous, downhill 40-foot putt. Vana stepped up and made his 15-foot birdie to halve the hole. The gallery went crazy.
"I can't believe that I made that putt," said Riley. "I honestly have no idea how I made that and then to see Frank make his to come back was huge. He had started to build momentum at that point and had a better look than I did. It really got me off to a good track going into the afternoon."
Unfortunately for Vana, he suffered a costly three putt - his first of the match - on the 18th green to give Riley a 4 Up lead through the first 18 holes.
"I was not as mentally sharp as I needed to be out there," said Vana. "It certainly would have been a lot better being down 3 instead of 4 [after 18]. But it's also tough to make birdies and keep halving holes."
Although Vana battled during the second 18 holes, he could never seem to close the gap enough. Riley continually came up with key shots to keep Vana at a distance. To wit, Vana drew within three on the 20th hole when he rolled in a four-foot birdie putt to best Riley's bogey. He would remain that close for only two holes.
On the 23rd hole, Vana found trouble off the tee and struggled to find the green. Meanwhile, Riley had no problems reaching the par-5 green in three shots to win the hole and regain a 4-Up advantage.
Then, on the 27th hole it appeared as if Vana would win the hole when he hit a knock-down 5 iron to four feet. Once again, Riley countered by making his 25-foot birdie putt to halve the hole and derail any miraculous Vana comeback.
"Winning the Amateur is special but to do it against someone whom you have such great respect for is amazing," said Riley. "He didn't have his "A" game at the start, but he had his game going for 20-something holes."
The match came to a fitting conclusion on the 33rd hole. Vana appeared to have the advantage once again as his ball sat just 12 feet from the hole and Riley was facing a difficult greenside bunker shot. Surprising the entire gallery, Riley chipped in for birdie to seal his 4 & 3 victory in incredible fashion.
"It didn't end the way I had hoped, but it was a great week," said Vana.
Although he was unable to capture his third Massachusetts Amateur Championship title this week, Vana is one of the most celebrated and dominating golfers of this century.
He has qualified for Match Play an unprecedented 21 straight years and has advanced to the finals of the Massachusetts Amateur Championship in six of the past nine years. He has also collected 12 MGA Championships and was the MGA Player of the Decades for the 1990s and 2000s.
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