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New England’s Best

KUA Graduate Russell Hangs on to Capture Title

  • Evan Russell smiles in the scoring tent at Green Mountain National Golf Course after his victory on Thursday. (Valley News - Greg Fennell)

    Evan Russell smiles in the scoring tent at Green Mountain National Golf Course after his victory on Thursday. (Valley News - Greg Fennell) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The follow-through wasn’t pretty, but this 17th-hole tee shot from Grantham’s Evan Russell led to the first of two closing pars that clinched his New England Amateur golf championship win yesterday at Green Mountain National Golf Course in Killington, Vt. Russell shot a closing 3-over-par 74 and finished at 5-under 208 for the tournament, beating 2006 New England Am champ Brad Valois by one stroke. (Valley News - Greg Fennell)

    The follow-through wasn’t pretty, but this 17th-hole tee shot from Grantham’s Evan Russell led to the first of two closing pars that clinched his New England Amateur golf championship win yesterday at Green Mountain National Golf Course in Killington, Vt. Russell shot a closing 3-over-par 74 and finished at 5-under 208 for the tournament, beating 2006 New England Am champ Brad Valois by one stroke. (Valley News - Greg Fennell) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Obscured by sand, 18-year-old Billy Walthouse, of Longmeadow, Mass., blasts his ball onto the 12th green of Green Mountain National Golf Course during the final round of the New England Amateur golf championship on Thursday. (Valley News - Greg Fennell)

    Obscured by sand, 18-year-old Billy Walthouse, of Longmeadow, Mass., blasts his ball onto the 12th green of Green Mountain National Golf Course during the final round of the New England Amateur golf championship on Thursday. (Valley News - Greg Fennell) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Evan Russell smiles in the scoring tent at Green Mountain National Golf Course after his victory on Thursday. (Valley News - Greg Fennell)
  • The follow-through wasn’t pretty, but this 17th-hole tee shot from Grantham’s Evan Russell led to the first of two closing pars that clinched his New England Amateur golf championship win yesterday at Green Mountain National Golf Course in Killington, Vt. Russell shot a closing 3-over-par 74 and finished at 5-under 208 for the tournament, beating 2006 New England Am champ Brad Valois by one stroke. (Valley News - Greg Fennell)
  • Obscured by sand, 18-year-old Billy Walthouse, of Longmeadow, Mass., blasts his ball onto the 12th green of Green Mountain National Golf Course during the final round of the New England Amateur golf championship on Thursday. (Valley News - Greg Fennell)

Killington, Vt. — Pressed for an answer on Green Mountain National Golf Course’s first tee Thursday afternoon, Evan Russell couldn’t decide if he’s the first Vermont native to win the New England Amateur golf championship since 1990 or the first Granite Stater to do so since 2001.

Honestly? He’s both.

Russell — whose 3-over-par 74 was just good enough to fend off former champ Brad Valois by a stroke in the 54-hole tournament — first made a name for himself during the back end of Essex High School’s four-year run of VPA Division I state championships in 2007-10. When his family moved to Grantham from Essex Junction three years ago, he continued his exploits at Kimball Union Academy and did well enough to land on the University of Hartford men’s golf team.

So that’s two states conquered. The others fell over three days in the Killington hills, where Russell’s consistency ultimately did the job.

This much is certain: He’s the first Vermont-born golfer to win the title on Vermont soil. And it came at a place where he’s quite comfortable.

“You can only do so bad when you hit fairways and greens,” said Russell, who shot 5-under-par 208 (68-66-74) for the week. “I hit probably 33 greens the first two days, and — if I had to guess — maybe 14 or 15 today. That was huge. …

“It’s a mental thing, I think. I played it safe. I hit a lot of hybrids; I hit two drivers the whole tournament. So it’s easier to hit fairways when you’re laying back a bit. It was definitely the right thing to do.”

Only Russell’s two Massachusetts playing partners, Brockton’s Matt Parziale and Longmeadow’s Billy Walthouse, were within five shots of him after Wednesday’s second round. It would figure the winner would come from that group, but it almost didn’t.

Russell opened the day with a wild drive off the first tee, a reachable par-5 that 2009 New England Am champ Parziale and the University of Rhode Island-bound Walthouse both birdied to quickly tie for the tournament lead at 7 under. Russell wouldn’t drop a shot for the next 14 holes; his partners leaked enough oil, however, to fall well back by the turn.

Parziale, 26, bogeyed four holes in a five-hole stretch to drop five shots off. Walthouse, 18, had greater misfortune, losing eight shots to par between holes 5 and 13 to fall out of red numbers for the first time all week.

“I wasn’t really hitting the ball well today, and my short game was off,” Walthouse, a recent Longmeadow High School graduate, said. “I lost a couple of balls off the tee. I think I was just a little tired after a lot of golf this week.”

Even with that, Russell let a little daylight sneak through the door late in the round.

GMNGC’s 15th hole, just 466 yards, tempts everyone to go for the green in two despite a shallow target and the need for a precise tee shot. Russell overcooked his approach following a well-placed drive, and it took “two or three of the worst chips of my life,” he said, to reach the green before the 20-year-old jarred an 8-foot bogey putt that drew decent applause from the 20 or so people following the lead threesome.

Russell then bogeyed 16, a downhill par-4, with a short-iron approach that missed the green right. In best position to take advantage, Parziale didn’t despite good shots to set up birdie attempts on both holes.

“I just wanted a chance with nine holes to go, and I had that,” said Parziale, a firefighter-in-training who recently regained his amateur status after three years in professional golf’s minor leagues. “I just didn’t hit the shots I needed to hit today.”

Valois, a URI grad just a week removed from his claiming fourth Rhode Island Amateur championship, turned in a 1-under 70 for his final round to finish at 4-under 209. Playing a group in front of Russell, he had no idea of how close he’d come to his second New England Am crown until reaching the clubhouse.

With Russell backing up, Valois sank birdie putts on 13 and 15 to reach 4 under and get within a stroke of the lead. All he could do from there was wait and hope.

“I gave myself a good amount of chances today; I was unable to capitalize on just about any of them,” Valois admitted. “I missed a couple of three-footers on the front nine, three-putted a par-5 and missed three birdie putts from inside 10 feet on the last three holes. When you’re not able to make putts like that, you’re not really going to win.”

Russell got back to his fairways-and-greens strategy just in time. Despite a one-handed follow-through, his drive on the 204-yard 17th hole stopped dead on the green 25 feet below the pin for a two-putt par. Fairway, green, two-putt par on 18, and … uncertainty.

“No one was really telling me the scores, so I was kind of going off the guys in my group,” Russell said. “I thought I had at least a two- or three-shot lead going into 18, and that was not the case. … My buddies were like, ‘We don’t know if you’ve won yet.’ ”

Russell liked knowing the New England Am would be at GMNGC. He played last summer’s Vermont Amateur there, as well as several American Junior Golf Association and high school tourneys. He’s familiar with its tight, tree-lined fairways, its abundant elevation changes, the way the wind can funnel from breeze to bluster without notice.

And he also liked knowing friends and family wouldn’t have to go far to offer support. His parents, Don and Mary, walked the entire final round. Russell called on an old friend from Colchester, Matt Nelson, to carry his old KUA golf bag.

“The first Vermonter to win here would be nice,” Russell admitted. “It’s nice to have friends and family. It’s a little bit more pressure in your home state, I think, maybe because you know the course and whatnot. I’m really happy about it.”

That’s not just a Vermonter talking.

That’s the king of New England.

Chip Shots: University of Connecticut sophomore golfer Zach Zaback finished third at 211, with Sugarbush’s Landon Michelson and Massachusetts’ Colin Brennan fourth at 212. Brennan, a senior at Florida’s Johnson & Wales University last year, made the day’s first charge at Russell with an eagle on 6 and birdies on 7 and 10, but four bogeys over five holes on the back nine ended his title hopes. … The only other Upper Valley golfer to make the 36-hole cut, Hanover’s Joe Toland, shot 75-68-79—222 to tie for 35th place. … Brattleboro’s Shawn Baker (1989) and Ekwanok’s Hans Albertsson (1990) are the only previous Vermont-based winners of the New England Am. Portsmouth’s Craig Steckowych is the last Granite Stater to win, at the Quechee Club in 2001. … There were times when the tournament felt like a URI golf alumni association meeting. In addition to incoming freshman Walthouse and graduate Valois, four members of last season’s varsity roster played at GMNGC. … According to Parziale, the New England Golf Association pared the tournament from its usual 72 holes to 54 because officials thought requiring golfers to walk 36 holes over Green Mountain’s hilly terrain would be too much to ask on the final day of play. “I just told (NEGA executive secretary Harry McCracken) — he asked 72 or 54, and I told him 72,” Parziale said. “It’s the only 72 we play all year, and I think that’s pretty special about this tournament. I think we’re going to go back to that next year.” … Next summer’s New England Am is set for Winchester (Mass.) Country Club.

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