James Imai leads the Massachusetts Open
James Imai (Mass Golf Photo)
James Imai (Mass Golf Photo)

Driving out of the gates of Willowbend at the conclusion of Tuesday’s second-round play, all of the easy charm of summer on Cape Cod came flooding back in an instant. The evening light developed a tinge of green as it filtered through the low, scrubby trees. Families sat tucked into red picnic tables, knee to knee, voraciously working on ice cream cones. Docked boats gently bobbled in blue inlets that seemed to wait around every meandering turn of the road.

You’d never know that just a few miles back, a field of highly skilled golfers, professional and amateurs alike, had been locked in a day’s long battle with a golf course that was unwilling to yield. In fact, it grew fiercer and firmer as the day wore on. Some players were locked in a stalemate, many fell back, and a handful rose to the occasion.

James Imai (KOHR Golf) took the fight directly to the golf course and came away with a share of both the lead (-5) and the course record (64). He is making a bid to become the first amateur to win the Massachusetts Open since 1999, and he’s joined by two fellow amateurs in the top 10, with C.J. Winchenbaugh (Oyster Harbors Club) in 6th at -2, and John Broderick (Dedham Country and Polo Club) T-8 at even par.

Jack Boulger (Walpole Country Club) held a one-shot lead after a stellar opening round 64, and a long birdie putt on his closing hole got him in the house with a 71 and a 5-under total that kept his name atop the leaderboard. Boulger and Imai are joined by Virginian professional Brandon Berry, who already has two PGA Tour starts on his 2024 resume. Berry shot a thrill ride of a 69 to back up his first-round 66.

Berry and Xavier Marcoux (Nashawtuc Country Club) are the only players with two rounds in the 60s. Marcoux, a Rutgers alum who has been battling for conditional status on PGA Tour Americas, opened with 69-68. He’s joined by 2019 Massachusetts Amateur champion Steven DiLisio (Salem Country Club) at -3, just two shots back.

Imai is coming off a tremendous conclusion to his collegiate career at Northwestern, where he helped his Wildcats claim the conference title by finishing in a tie for third individually at the Big Ten Conference Championship.

Imai battled in the afternoon draw of round one, grappling with difficult wind and greens that firmed up throughout the day. He entered the 17th at 3-over before clawing his way back to 1-over with back-to-back birdies to finish. That gutsy closing stretch kept him in good position for round two.

“Yesterday I struggled a little bit, but just tried to make as many birdies as I can, just fight my way back, survive. It was a lot windier yesterday. I did that on 17 and 18, so obviously felt much better going to bed,” said Imai.

It seems that a night of contented sleep combined with placid morning course conditions was a recipe for success. Imai started his second round on the back nine and came out of the gates with gusto. He played 10 through 13, statistically one of the toughest stretches on the golf course, in 3-under.

“It’s all about picking and choosing where you’re aggressive, where you hold back. And just knowing your game is probably really important to be able to make those right decisions, and I feel really good about my game plan and how I attacked the pins today, from working back from green to tee,” said Imai.

Clearly, Imai chose the 17th and 18th holes as two of his points of aggression. Playing them as his 8th and 9th holes today, he went birdie-eagle for a cumulative two-day total of -5 on those holes alone. If Imai remains in the hunt late into Wednesday’s final round, surely he’d do well to recall his recent history on that crucial stretch.

“On 17, I hit a good layup and had a perfect number for wedge, so I hit a good one to six feet. Made it. And then on 18, I pulled my three iron a little bit, but they moved the tee up slightly from yesterday, so it carried the bunkers. Then hit a good mid-iron to the middle of the green and made the putt,” he said. “So that definitely springboarded me for a solid front nine.”

Solid, indeed. Imai went out in 30, which had him at 4-under for the tournament. He followed that up with a tidy back nine, stringing together eight pars and a birdie on the 8th, finishing the day with a course record-tying 64 and clocking in at 5-under for the tournament.

In the clubhouse and ordering lunch before 1 p.m., perhaps Imai grabbed a seat on Willowbend’s lovely balcony and enjoyed the increasingly consequential Cape Cod breeze, turned a keen ear in search of the echoing thud of firming greens. Or, more in character, he set to game planning for a final round that could see him become the first amateur to win the Mass Open since Kevin Quinn in 1999.

“I saw a lot of good progress today, so I’m just going to go home, get rested, and kind of remember all the good I did today and try to do the same thing tomorrow and see where it puts me at the end of it,” said Imai. “I’m definitely feeling really good and ready to see what my game is going to look like tomorrow under the gun.”

Brandon Berry proved there’s more than one way to post 5-under as he played what looked to be the antithesis of Imai’s carefully plotted 64.

“I had a really insane couple of holes there," Berry said. "I holed out for birdie from 60 yards on my last hole yesterday after chipping out sidewise. And then, the first hole today, I had an eagle putt racing by the hole, and you know, it hits the back of the cup and goes in. I made a birdie a couple of holes later to go 3-under through 3, the wheels fell off on the front nine for a little bit."

Berry dropped back with two bogeys and a double on his way out, carding a geometry-heavy 36. That rough stretch may have been regrettable, but it hardly sounded forgettable:

“The tee was moved up on 6 today, and I didn’t realize it. I just sent one into the woods. Lost ball. So that was unfortunate. That's a huge mental error there, just giving away two shots like that. And then, on hole 8, I topped a 3-wood 15 yards off the tee. So that was some really bad golf there for a little bit.”

However, Berry settled down nicely on the back nine, birdieing three of his last five holes en route to a 69. “I had a really great attitude, and I stayed in it, and I posted a nice number,” he said.

Berry has seen his share of big-league golf this year. He has competed in two PGA Tour events, including a made cut at the Corales Puntacana Championship, as well as a start on the Korn Ferry tour. The 25-year-old Virginian was headed to the practice range to grind out a few more reps, and he seemed just as eager as the rest of us to see if he could put it all together tomorrow.

“I’m trying to hit some balls; I’ve hit it pretty poorly the last two days," said Berry. "But the putter and chipping have been really good, which is awesome to see because it hasn’t been as sharp as I would like the last couple of months. I’m really excited for the challenge, whatever it brings tomorrow.”

After setting the course record yesterday, which Imai promptly matched today, it was a bit more of a grind-it-out round for Jack Boulger on Tuesday. He finished with a 1-over 71, good enough to keep him in a share of the lead.

“I wasn’t hitting it great today," Boulger said. "I was kind of lag putting from all over the place. So I was trying to see what happens, and if I put together another good round, great, but I was trying to just kind of keep myself in it for tomorrow." 

With the course firming up, Boulger found that certain clubs he hit off tees yesterday ran out as much as thirty yards farther today, demanding an adjustment in approach. On the par-4 8th, his 17th hole, his hybrid off the tee bounced and rolled its way over 275 yards, finding a sliver of the fairway that ends only a few steps from out-of-bounds stakes. From there, he played a beautifully flighted pitch shot that never got more than 10 feet off the ground, landing on the front of the green and chasing back some 50-plus feet to a back pin. However, he couldn’t cash in his 10-foot birdie bid.

Entering his last hole of the day, the 9th, at 2-over for the round, Boulger striped a 330-yard drive down the hill, setting up a 107-yard approach. True to the rest of his gritty round, a closing birdie didn’t come easy. “Just kind of didn’t hit a great wedge, spun off the right side. So, I mean, that was pretty much what was happening all day. I was just lag putting from everywhere, finally one dropped in,” he said. “It was a putt from off the green, up the fringe, and probably 10 feet out. I was like, that looks pretty good if it holds its line. Fortunately, it dropped.”

The final round gets underway at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow, with the final group teeing off at 11:50 a.m. Be sure to follow along with our coverage throughout the day, which will include live video and commentary on Instagram provided by one Stephen Hanjack as the leaders enter the closing stretch of the course.

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ABOUT THE Massachusetts Open

54 hole stroke play championship open to professional golfers and amateur golfers with an active USGA GHIN Handicap Index not exceeding 2.4, or who have completed their handicap certification. Nonexempt players must pre-qualify.

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