ARLINGTON, Virginia (August 29, 2014) –– Protecting a slim advantage on the second nine in the scheduled 18-hole final of the 67th Virginia State Golf Association Senior Amateur Championship on Friday, one might expect Keith Decker of Martinsville to rely on his vast experience as one of the commonwealth’s most decorated players.
But it was breathing lessons from his wife, Shelly, a yoga instructor, which helped him secure a 1-up victory over Michael Caprio (Arlington) at the event, which concluded today at Army Navy Country Club’s Arlington Course.
“She says, ‘Listen, when you’re coming down to the end, everything wants to speed up and you’re going to want to do everything fast, you’ve got to slow down and breathe,’ ” Decker said. “I channeled it today and it worked.”
Appropriately enough, the name of the studio where Shelly works is Just Breathe.
Breathing is the key to playing well after 50, Decker (pictured left), who posted a repeat victory in the Senior Amateur, may have a huge edge as he bolsters his list of accomplishments as a senior golfer.
With the triumph, this season, Decker has won all three of the significant senior events the VSGA conducts, having posted a repeat victory at the VSGA Senior Stroke Play this spring. Decker claimed the VSGA Senior Four-Ball Championship (with Vienna’s Pat Tallent) in May. All told, Decker has collected six VSGA senior titles since turning 50 in April 2010; he won the Senior Open of Virginia that year.
Decker has also captured a record six VSGA Four-Ball titles, three State Opens, two VSGA Amateurs and an unprecedented seven VSGA Mid-Amateurs. He has amassed a combined 24 victories in the aforementioned championships (including senior events), as well as hoisting the trophy in a host of VSGA ‘majors.’
Still a threat in events for players of all ages, Decker sounds almost apologetic when accepting congratulations for winning the Senior Amateur, a championship open to golfers ages 50 and older. Almost.
“I’m a senior now,” said Decker, 54. “I’m still having a hard time wrapping my brain around that.”
This week, Decker, the championship’s stroke-play medalist, looked every bit in his prime. On Friday he played consistently, making 16 pars and two bogeys, and never trailed in the deciding encounter.
“I was fortunate enough to have a couple-up lead and I just sort of hung on,” said Decker, who has now won 10 straight matches at the VSGA Senior Amateur dating back to last year’s victory at Farmington Country Club in Charlottesville. “It was a good match right down to the end.”
Owner of a one hole up lead after losing the 16th hole, Decker appeared to be in trouble at No. 17. His approach from a fairway bunker settled short of the green, far below the putting surface. But Decker hit perhaps his best shot of the day—a chip that checked on the second bounce and came to rest two inches short of the hole.
“I was really concentrating on getting it to the hole because the greens can be a little sticky,” Decker said. “As soon as I hit it, it felt good. I thought I had enough juice to get it there.”
Caprio had a similar shot from the right side of the green and nearly holed out for a birdie, before ultimately coming away with a conceded par.
At No. 18, a 177-yard par 3, both players found the putting surface with their tee shots. After Caprio missed his 25-footer for birdie, Decker left his 20-footer two feet below the hole and knocked in the short putt for the victory.
“He played solidly,” said Caprio, 51. “I’ll add this to my gaggle of runner-up finishes—those were all against good players too.”
Thirty years ago and a couple months after graduating from the University of Connecticut, Caprio lost to local icon Dick Siderowf in the Connecticut Amateur. Last year, in his first attempt to win the VSGA Senior Amateur, Caprio fell in the opening round of match play to Virginia amateur legend Vinny Giles of Richmond.
“Maybe one of these days, I’ll get somebody who’s not quite as accomplished,” Caprio joked.
On Friday, Decker played the first 10 holes in immaculate fashion – hitting fairways, greens and leaving himself uphill putts. Holding the advantage, Decker played conservatively and in control as he made par on each of those 10 holes.
“I didn’t make a birdie today. That is unusual,” Decker said. “I was under par in every match I had except for today. Match play is different. It’s different from stroke play. Your opponent sort of dictates what you do. … I err on the side of caution.”
Caprio made three birdies, accounting for wins on each of those holes, but Decker gave him few opportunities, and little margin for error.
Professionally, Caprio is on a five-year hitch in the Washington, D.C., area for KPMG. In the championship final, he fell behind early, hitting his tee shot into a hazard on No. 2 and found trouble again on No. 4.
But Caprio recovered at No. 5 by draining a 35-foot birdie putt to get within one hole down. After missing the green at the par-3 sixth hole and making bogey to lose the hole, Caprio answered with another birdie from four feet at No. 7. But another bogey followed as Decker regained a two holes up lead after nine.
The match remained that way until No. 12. There, at the 220-yard par-3, Decker hit an iron shot that just cleared a hazard and stopped short of the green. Caprio failed to take advantage, however, as he pushed his 5-wood short and right, into the hazard.
“I was struggling with sliding into the ball and that’s exactly what I did there, fanning it out,” Caprio said. “If I could have hit a solid shot to the middle of the green there, make three, maybe he makes bogey … But that was the key shot [of the match].”
Facing a three holes down deficit, Caprio recovered with a birdie at the par-5 13th, where he chipped to within three feet, resulting in a birdie. Then at the par-5 16th, Decker’s approach shot came up short and he failed to get up and down. Caprio made a par and was one hole down.
“When you’re down in match play and you start to make a little bit of a comeback, you know the other guy is feeling it,” Caprio said.
But Decker remembered his wife’s lessons and kept his composure on the final two holes, enhancing his already rich amateur résumé. He became the event’s first repeat champion since 2005-06 when Jamie Gough won two consecutive titles.
After a fine college career at Elon, Decker was approached by three investors who pooled $75,000 to try to convince him to turn professional.
“In those days, that was enough to keep you going for a few years,” Decker said. “But I only thought about it for about five minutes.”
Instead, Decker settled into a career as a furniture sales representative and amateur golfer, using Giles’ path as a model. Giles won the U.S. Amateur in 1972 and U.S. Senior Amateur in 2009, among his other accomplishments.
“I admire Vinny because he stayed an amateur his whole career,” Decker said. “He’s been a successful golfer, successful businessman, husband and father. He’s a hero to me.”