WALPOLE, Mass. (June 6, 2012) -- With 18 holes remaining at the 103rd Massachusetts Open Championship, Michael Ballo (Stamford, CT) finds himself well positioned for his first career professional victory.
Despite pouring rain during the afternoon hours, Ballo battled through the elements and a tough at Walpole Country Club layout to post a 2-under par 69 and now holds a one-shot lead heading into the third and final round of play.
"I didn't try to force anything, and I played really good golf coming in so I am going to try and do the same thing tomorrow," said Ballo, who stands at 6-under par 136. "No matter what is going on, I am going to keep playing the course exactly the same way I have done the past two few days because that has seemed to work."
That strategy worked perfectly especially down the stretch where he played 3-under par golf through his final seven holes. In fact, through two rounds of play Ballo has posted five birdies and zero bogies on Holes 12 through 18.
It was only fitting that the turning point on Wednesday came during that stretch of holes. After suffering a bogey (he missed an 8-footer for par) on the 11th hole, Ballo was 1-over par for the day and had just launched his drive on the 557-yard, par 5 12th hole deep into the right woods.
Ballo then played his second shot down the right side of the 10th hole and hit an 8-iron shot from the left rough of the 10th hole onto the fringe of the 12th green. He put an exclamation point on the hole by draining a 20-foot birdie putt
"The 12th hole was the craziest birdie I ever made," said Ballo. "That was the turning point in the round. I was 1-over and was working hard but things can go either way. I made that birdie and from there on out I hit it great coming in."
He proceeded to two-putt from 20 feet for birdie on the 518-yard, par 5 15th hole and then hit his approach on the 363-yard, par 4 16th hole to six feet for birdie.
"I was solid coming in," said Ballo, who noted that – after not making birdie on any of the par 5s on Tuesday – he made birdie on all three par 5s on Wednesday. "I was pleased with how I played."
Winning on Thursday would be especially sweet for Ballo, who finished second last year by just one stroke.
"I had the tournament in control [last year] and with a few holes left I let it slip away," said Ballo. "That is what golf is all about. It has happened to every single guy who has ever played in and won a tournament."
"The Mass Open is definitely the one I have really focused on this summer," continued Ballo. "I am happy to be in the position I am in."
Sitting one stroke back of Ballo with a score of 5-under par 137 is Mark Stevens (Concord, NH), who is looking to add on to his already impressive list of New England State Open Championship titles.
One year ago during his first full season as a professional, Stevens captured the 2011 Cape Cod Open in May and then followed that up with a win in August at the 2011 Rhode Island Open.
Following a 3-under par 68 on Tuesday, Stevens came out strong once again and posted a 2-under par 69 to remain in striking distance.
Stevens overcame two bogies today with two birdies on both the front and back nines. Through two rounds, Stevens has made a total of eight birdies.
"It's obviously great position to be in, but I really don't try to look at it anything more than that," said Stevens, who resides in Concord (NH) and spent this past summer playing events in Austin, Texas. "It's just a good position. It's not a 36 hole tournament; it's a 54 hole tournament so I still have to play 18 good holes and see where it puts me."
The Cut Line
New for the 2012 Massachusetts Open Championship, the 36-hole cut line was increased from the low 40 scorers and ties to the low 50 scorers and ties.
This year's cut line fell at 6-over par 148 with a total of 50 competitors earning the right to advance to the third and final round of play.
The final group of Ballo and Stevens will tee off at 10:20 a.m.
Shot of the Day
It was a stretch of golf that Steve Sokol (Milford, CT) won't soon forget. Beginning his second round on the 10th hole, the golf professional at Orange Hills Golf Club (CT) exploded out of the gates by playing 5-under par golf through his first five holes.
In addition to making birdies on the 10th, 12th and 14th holes, Sokol delivered the shot of the tournament when he made a hole in one on the 203-yard, par 3 11th hole. It marked his second career hole in one and the first ever carded in competition.
"Whenever you hit one at the flag you think that it has a chance," said Sokol, who finished with a two-round score of 1-under par 141. "But I knew that it was a good shot and it wasn't one that hit off a rake or a tree and went in."
Not even close. Sokol, a 2002 graduate of Florida Southern College, watched his 5-iron shot sail towards the green and roll in for an eagle. He finished the day with a score of 1-under par 70.
"It was still a little surreal until you picked it out of the hole," said Sokol.
Grillo On the Move
A few weeks ago, Antonio Grillo (Farm Neck GC) was enjoying his final days as a college student at Harvard University. This week, he finds himself in the hunt for the Massachusetts Open Championship title against some of the region's top professional players.
"I am working hard on my game but I am having a lot of fun doing it," said Grillo, who plans to put his Economics degree to work this fall in the financial services industry. "There is not quite as much pressure now with the work but there is still pressure when it comes to tournaments. Leading up to this for instance I wasn't worried this week that I got rained out the last two days of practice."
The lack of practice and play (he hasn't posted a competitive round since his graduation from Harvard in mid May) hasn't impacted Grillo's play this week as he managed to card five birdies on Tuesday and five birdies on Wednesday to find himself in contention.
Following a round-one score of 1-under par 70, Grillo came out firing by making birdie on two of his first three holes on Wednesday morning. He went on to make two bogies and one more birdie – on the 518-yard, par 5 15th hole – to make the turn at 1-under par.
"I am actually at a really good place with my swing where I know what I am doing and it's an easy move and the ball tends to go straight when I look up," said Grillo. "I haven't put together a full round under par since I left school… so I am thrilled with the fact that I actually posted a number and posted two scores under par this week."
One of the key turning points on Wednesday came on the 5th hole (his 14th hole of the day). After just making a birdie on the 4th hole, Grillo was faced with a 15-foot bogey putt on the 428-yard, par 4 5th hole. Made even more formidable given the challenging greens at Walpole Country Club, Grillo not only drained the putt but he went on to make birdie on his next hole.
"Those were two quick shots that I could have lost," said Grillo. "I wouldn't call [my round] sporadic because I didn't make any doubles, but in that same light I am the type of kid who when I play a good round I have two birdies and a bogey rather than five birdies and four bogies."
If successful on Thursday, Grillo will become the first amateur since 1999 to win the Massachusetts Open Championship. Although a daunting challenge, there has been a recent trend of amateurs who have been able to compete against the professionals.
To wit, one year ago Brian Higgins (Franklin CC) played himself into the final pairings at the 2011 Massachusetts Open Championship and ended up finishing T6 along with Chris Congdon (Foxborough CC).
"Obviously the big difference is that they are playing for money and I am not which puts a little more pressure on them," said Grillo. "I just finished college and am still competing but there is a little less pressure as far as performance goes. I t hope to get paired up [on Thursday] with some pros. I am looking forward to their competitiveness and hope that I can keep up."
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