Mass Open: Brandon Berry defeats Amateur James Imai in thrilling finish
Brandon Berry (Mass Golf Photo)
Brandon Berry (Mass Golf Photo)

The tidal momentum swings and figurative gut punches in the final round of a golf championship are enough to take your breath away. And that's just for the people watching.

While several bounces went in favor of Brandon Berry in Wednesday's final round of the 114th Massachusetts Open at Willowbend, hope seemed to wan when the 25-year-old Great Falls, Virginia, professional and Loyola University (MD) grad put his second shot on the par-4 17th into the water and went one stroke down to Brookline amateur and recent Northwestern University graduate James Imai (KOHR Golf), who walked to the 18th tee in the lead in pursuit of a historic comeback victory.

But it was simply the day for the rising pro to shine. Berry turned the tables completely after crushing a 3-wood and flighting a 7-iron directly into the wind inside 10 feet on the par-5 closing hole. Though Imai's counter move was a heart-stopping 50-foot putt to save par on the iconic island green, Berry sank his eagle putt to win his first-ever multi-day championship since turning pro in 2022. Though he played in two PGA Tour events this spring — Corales Puntacana Championship & Myrtle Beach Classic — Berry said this was his favorite course to play and, understandably, the highlight of his young career.

"I finished top three in three different state opens last year and didn't win one, so it definitely feels good to get a victory because it's really hard to do that in golf," said Berry, who finished 66-69-69–204 (6-under) over three days to claim Clarence G. Cochrane Memorial Trophy and the $15,000 top prize that goes with it. "James and I were really pushing each other. I really didn't feel like I did that much bad, but it was definitely earned today, wasn't given."

Though he had a four-stroke lead at the turn, Berry wouldn't have lifted the trophy without fortuitous breaks throughout. On the par-4 8th, Berry almost hit his drive long out of bounds, but instead of sailing into the road, it hit a sprinkler box and stopped on a dime. He then proceeded to get up and down for birdie to expand his lead. Despite a double bogey on the 10th, the unexpected birdie on the eighth ostensibly was a sturdy cushion.

"That was a pretty special break," Berry said. "I would have been teeing off from the tee hitting three, so I probably would have made six there, and it's probably the difference between me having this trophy and not having it."

Imai, who had already tied the course record of 64 on Tuesday, entered Wednesday in a three-way tie for the lead at 5-under with Berry and Jack Boulger (Walpole Country Club), who had set the record mark with a 64 on Monday. Imai's determination was evident early as he separated from the pack by the 13th, sinking a 15-foot downhill birdie putt that crossed the ridge through the green and getting within two strokes of Berry.

Imai got within one on the 16th, striking his wedge to two feet for a kick-in birdie. With the water looming on the short 17th, Imai was dead center while Berry was on the edge of the penalty area with his feet up against the hazard. Trying to fly a wedge 70 feet to the putting surface, he found the water short and scrambled for a double bogey instead.

"I thought I could hit it to 15-20 feet, but I probably should have chipped it out sideways or made sure it went long because the lie wasn't good, I didn't have much of a stance, and I was kicking myself. But if you told me when this started Monday I'd be one back on the last hole, I would've taken that."

On 18, Imai decided to hit a driving iron and then lay up, trusting his solid wedge game to avoid flirting with the water surrounding the green. Berry, meanwhile, was 100 yards ahead and put the pressure on Imai with an excellent second shot.

"I was trying my best not to look at leaderboards until 18 because what you need to make on the score really dictates your strategy," said Imai, a three-time Mass Junior Amateur and 2021 Mass Amateur Public Links champion. "My goal was just to do everything I could in my power to set myself up to win. If he beats me with an eagle on 18, hats off."

Unfortunately for Imai, he was hunched over in frustration after his wedge bounced past the hole and into back rough humps surrounding the back of the green. His birdie chip rolled back down to the front of the green about 50 feet from the cup. But Imai was resolute, taking the flatstick from his sister Julia Imai and stepping up to make one of the most electric putts in championship history.

"That was one of the cooler moments because of the surroundings and stakes," Imai said of his putt. "That's something that shows what I can do, so I'm definitely going to remember that and use that as confidence moving forward."

While the stakes heightened for Berry, the swift-playing righty ended any playoff aspirations by knocking home the winning putt, pumping his fist, and then tapping his chest as a visible sense of relief flashed across his face.

"If you had to ask me of a putt I could have from 10 feet, it'd be a little downhiller right edge," Berry said. "It's what you dream of in those pressure situations. You don't have to do much with it. These greens are so good. You just have to get it going, and gravity will do the rest."

While Imai came up short of the victory, his future looks promising. In the summer, he will play in Elite Amateur Golf Series events, including the Northeast Amateur and Trans-Mississippi, with plans to turn pro in the fall.

"I was working on my swing a lot the last month or so. I thought it was a good opportunity for me to see what my game was like when maybe it felt like a C to C-plus," Imai said. "To be in contention and how to hit shots on command while not feeling great is super encouraging, and I know I'm heading in the right direction."

A recent Rutgers University graduate, Xavier Marcoux (Nashawtuc Country Club) finished T3 at 3-under, tied alongside Connecticut Open champion Brett Stegmaier and fellow Florida pro Chris Wiatr. Stegmaier made an eagle on the 18th to cap off a 66, but a double bogey on the 13th spoiled his chance at a share of the course record and a potential spot in a playoff.

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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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