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Experience Pays a Dividend: For Russell, 2013’s Successes Turn Into 2014’s Opportunities

  • Grantham's Evan Russell scampers from under a tree branch to follow the flight of his second shot on Burlington Country Club's par-5 seventh hole during the final round of the Vermont Golf Association amateur championship on Thursday, July 10. Russell erased a three-shot deficit on the tournament's final hole, then beat Jay Peak's Bryan Smith on the fifth playoff hole to win his second straight Vermont Amateur.<br/>Valley News -- Greg Fennell

    Grantham's Evan Russell scampers from under a tree branch to follow the flight of his second shot on Burlington Country Club's par-5 seventh hole during the final round of the Vermont Golf Association amateur championship on Thursday, July 10. Russell erased a three-shot deficit on the tournament's final hole, then beat Jay Peak's Bryan Smith on the fifth playoff hole to win his second straight Vermont Amateur.
    Valley News -- Greg Fennell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hanover's Nick MacDonald is playing in his first New Hampshire Amateur since his runner-up finish in the 2011 tournament at Nashua Country Club.<br/>Valley News file — Greg Fennell

    Hanover's Nick MacDonald is playing in his first New Hampshire Amateur since his runner-up finish in the 2011 tournament at Nashua Country Club.
    Valley News file — Greg Fennell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Grantham's Evan Russell scampers from under a tree branch to follow the flight of his second shot on Burlington Country Club's par-5 seventh hole during the final round of the Vermont Golf Association amateur championship on Thursday, July 10. Russell erased a three-shot deficit on the tournament's final hole, then beat Jay Peak's Bryan Smith on the fifth playoff hole to win his second straight Vermont Amateur.<br/>Valley News -- Greg Fennell
  • Hanover's Nick MacDonald is playing in his first New Hampshire Amateur since his runner-up finish in the 2011 tournament at Nashua Country Club.<br/>Valley News file — Greg Fennell

Burlington — Winning the New England Amateur and Vermont Amateur in the span of less than a month last summer opened a lot of doors this year for Grantham’s Evan Russell, and for that he’s thankful.

Repeating at Vermont Am champ last week at Burlington Country Club also has put Russell in a grateful mood, and not solely because of the near-miraculous nature of his victory. For all of the opportunities his 2013 victories presented, he hadn’t been able to put four solid rounds of golf together until returning to one of the old haunts of his youth.

The busiest summer of Russell’s life wouldn’t be that way without last year’s success.

“It’s everything; my wins last summer had a huge impact, and obviously I had a great school year,” the soon-to-be University of Hartford junior said on Thursday after his latest state am win. “I was lucky enough to get invited, and I’m definitely grateful for those events. It gave me a lot of experience.”

Russell has competed in three amateur tournaments of regional and national importance this summer. None of them ended as Russell might have hoped, but they had a cumulative benefit at Burlington.

The Kimball Union Academy graduate started with the Sunnehanna Amateur in Johnstown, Pa., in early June, where a first-round 82 led to his eventual cut following the third round of the four-round event. Russell shot 69-70 his final two days, falling two shots off the cut line.

A week later, Russell reported to Rumford, R.I., for the Northeast Amateur, where again one poor round (an opening 76) resulted in a missed cut. Russell was also invited to the prestigious North & South Amateur in Pinehurst, N.C., in late June, where he finished well outside of qualifying for the tournament’s match play finals.

“Didn’t exactly go how I wanted,” Russell said. “It was a little frustrating, but I wasn’t playing that bad. I would just have one bad round and two solid rounds. It’s more of a mental grind to get through it rather than just being physical.”

That lesson served Russell on two fronts at Burlington.

First of all, tournaments such as the North & South and U.S. Open qualifying (Russell missed the Open field by just three strokes at a Maryland sectional in early June) are played on 7,000-yard courses, requiring frequent use of a driver. Burlington Country Club checks in at 6,500 yards and — when set up in state championship form, as it was on Thursday — offers few bona fide scoring opportunities. Russell realized this and played irons off most tees, sacrificing 30 yards to his opponents in exchange for accuracy. Only when he needed two late birdies to force a playoff did Russell break out the bazooka.

Beyond that, the mental toughness required to compete in a national tournament — and produce an acceptable score in tough circumstances — may have had a more direct benefit.

“Last year (at the Country Club of Barre), I was leading the whole way through,” Russell said of last summer’s Vermont Am win. “It was a little bit easier stress-wise or mentality-wise. This year, I really had to grind it out and mature a little bit, whether I wanted to or not. I think I did well.”

This summer has also been built on Russell’s stellar college season at Hartford, where he won two tournaments, finished second three times, made the top 10 in 10 of his 11 starts and set a program scoring average record (70.39). A year after winning the America Sky Conference’s newcomer of the year as a freshman, Russell was tabbed the league’s player of the year for his sophomore campaign. He also earned an invitation to the NCAA Division I championship as an individual.

Russell’s remaining summer schedule includes a United States Amateur qualifier today at Trump National Golf Club in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.; next week’s New England Amateur in Winchester, Mass.; and the Francis Ouimet Memorial in Massachusetts at the end of the month. Should he qualify, the U.S. Am would be Aug. 11-17 at Atlanta Athletic Club.

“I tried my hardest to not put a lot of pressure on myself coming into this week, but obviously I wanted to win,” Russell said of his latest Vermont win. “I used to be a member here, so obviously there are a lot of memories. I just wanted to play as hard as I could.”

Temple of Zoom: Former Hartford High golfer Zach Temple tied for seventh at the Vermont Amateur, meaning he’s already in the field for next year’s championship at Champlain Country Club. His college golf team could change by then.

Temple chose Castleton State College with the intention of playing one or two years there to establish himself before looking into Division I opportunities. His freshman season netted the North Atlantic Conference rookie of the year award; Temple led the Spartans in scoring in each of their tournaments during the campaign.

Speaking between Thursday’s final rounds, Temple said he’s visited a few Division I campuses in New England and is keeping a couple of factors in mind. First, the NAC championship is in the fall while most D-Is have theirs in the spring, so transferring could give him a chance to play for two titles. Since he’d be moving up from a D-III program, Temple wouldn’t have to sit out a competitive year if he changes schools.

But Castleton will also have a new men’s golf coach in Bill Bowes’ place in the fall. Temple said he might be willing to play another full year for the Spartans if things go well with the new guy in charge.

Temple shot 77-77-76-77—307 and shared seventh place with two other competitors at the state am.

Chip Shots: The Upper Valley has a distinct lack of presence in U.S. Amateur qualifying this year. Aside from Russell’s 36-hole visit to Trump National today (tee time: 9:09 a.m.), the closest competitor is Killington’s Garren Poirier, who missed the cut at a qualifier last week at the Crumpin-Fox Club in Massachusetts. … As it is, Poirier has a date this week at the last U.S. Public Links Championship in Kansas. The USGA is replacing the Publinx with a national four-ball tournament next year. … Temple and Hanover High graduate Nate Choukas have taken advantage of a scheduling fluke to play in both the Vermont and New Hampshire state amateur tournaments; the latter begins today at Stonebridge Country Club in Goffstown. The two events usually run concurrently. Both played out of Lake Morey Country Club in the Vermont Am; Choukas missed the cut. … Hanover’s Nick MacDonald is in the N.H. Am field for the first time since losing the 2011 match-play final to Beaver Meadow’s Jim Cilley at Nashua Country Club, 1 up. MacDonald won the 2010 championship in a 7-and-5 decision over Ridgewood’s Ken Nilson at Eastman Golf Links. … Other Upper Valley competitors at the N.H. Am this week include Newport’s Michael and Matthew Killam; Carter’s Andy Hunnewell; Hanover’s Henry Sherman and Zach Pollard; and Lake Sunapee’s Ted Craigie, Robert Williams Jr. and Chris Durocher. The field of 138 will play two stroke-play rounds today and Tuesday to determine the 64 golfers to match play, who will then duel through Saturday.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.