Grantham’s Russell Defends Vermont Am Title in Playoff

  • Grantham's Evan Russell, having accidentally left his normal sand wedge on another hole, blasts out of a greenside bunker on Burlington Country Club's 15th hole with a different club during the final round of the Vermont Golf Association amateur championship on Thursday, July 10. Russell bogeyed the hole but later rallied for a playoff win for his second consecutive Vermont Amateur crown.<br/>Valley News -- Greg Fennell

    Grantham's Evan Russell, having accidentally left his normal sand wedge on another hole, blasts out of a greenside bunker on Burlington Country Club's 15th hole with a different club during the final round of the Vermont Golf Association amateur championship on Thursday, July 10. Russell bogeyed the hole but later rallied for a playoff win for his second consecutive Vermont Amateur crown.
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  • Jay Peak's Bryan Smith can't coax a birdie putt into the cup on Burlington Country Club's par-3 third hole during a playoff with Grantham's Evan Russell for the Vermont Golf Association amateur championship on Thursday, July 10. Smith lost the playoff, and the state am, to Russell on the fifth playoff hole after surrendering a three-stroke lead on the final hole of regulation.<br/>Valley News -- Greg Fennell

    Jay Peak's Bryan Smith can't coax a birdie putt into the cup on Burlington Country Club's par-3 third hole during a playoff with Grantham's Evan Russell for the Vermont Golf Association amateur championship on Thursday, July 10. Smith lost the playoff, and the state am, to Russell on the fifth playoff hole after surrendering a three-stroke lead on the final hole of regulation.
    Valley News -- Greg Fennell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Grantham's Evan Russell, having accidentally left his normal sand wedge on another hole, blasts out of a greenside bunker on Burlington Country Club's 15th hole with a different club during the final round of the Vermont Golf Association amateur championship on Thursday, July 10. Russell bogeyed the hole but later rallied for a playoff win for his second consecutive Vermont Amateur crown.<br/>Valley News -- Greg Fennell
  • Jay Peak's Bryan Smith can't coax a birdie putt into the cup on Burlington Country Club's par-3 third hole during a playoff with Grantham's Evan Russell for the Vermont Golf Association amateur championship on Thursday, July 10. Smith lost the playoff, and the state am, to Russell on the fifth playoff hole after surrendering a three-stroke lead on the final hole of regulation.<br/>Valley News -- Greg Fennell

Burlington — Venerable Burlington Country Club isn’t so much a golf course upon which competitors take advantage as it is one that can easily take its advantage upon the field.

Knowing that, Grantham’s Evan Russell approached the defense of his Vermont Golf Association amateur championship this week with a conservative game plan. By choosing irons over drivers on most tees in the three-day, 72-hole championship, the Kimball Union Academy graduate hoped to put himself in good position to shoot close to par every day and win a second straight title.

But sometimes, you just have to say the hell with it all.

Not knowing how close he was to catching final-round leader Bryan Smith, but figuring it wouldn’t matter, Russell brought out his driver for the last two holes of Thursday’s 36-hole finale. He birdied each. The latter forced a sudden-death playoff abetted by Smith, who saw a three-stroke lead with one hole to go evaporate with one bad swing.

Russell finally claimed the championship on the fifth playoff hole with a two-putt birdie on Burlington’s par-5 fifth. Oh, by the way, he hit the driver off that tee, too.

“My buddy Jake (Orr) told me I just needed to two-putt (for the playoff) because Bryan had just doubled (18),” Russell recalled. “That was kind of a relief because I was kind of down and out. Not in a disappointed way or angry way, but I thought it was over; I was kind of content with it. I played well all week and stuck to my game plan, and that’s all you can ask for.”

Russell — on a 3-over-par tourney tally of 74-70-69-74—287 — becomes just the ninth back-to-back champion in the 108 years the Vermont Amateur has been staged.

Smith had chased — and briefly caught — Russell during the final round of last year’s state am at the Country Club of Barre. He opened Thursday with a five-shot lead; by the day’s second 18, he was back in the role of pursuer thanks to a 6-over-par 77.

The one-time teaching pro seemed to relish the pursuit. Forced to chase Russell (third-round 69) and Rutland High junior phenom Drake Hull (third-round 70), Smith caught both just after the fourth-round turn, gradually expanding his lead to as many of four shots before it all went so horribly wrong.

“There’s a lot of emotion, for sure, but a sigh of relief at the same time,” admitted Smith, whose voice briefly wavered at the outset of reporters’ questions. “I played as hard as I could play. That was a lot of fun. It was a bummer the way I finished. I had it in the bag, but that’s golf.”

Neither Russell or Hull could gain traction during the afternoon 18, seemingly alternating bogeys and birdies. And that left enough room for Smith to squeeze through with a 1-under front nine to start the fourth round that brought the Jay Peak amateur to within a shot of the pairing ahead of him.

Russell was at 2 over for the championship after 10, 3 over after 12, 4 over by 15 and 5 over following an embarrassing bogey on 16. It was only while perusing his golf ball in a greenside sand trap that he and his caddie realized Russell’s normal sand wedge had accidentally been left behind two holes earlier.

With two birdies in fives, highlighted by a 15-foot chip-in on the par-3 14th that drew a loud reaction from a friendly gallery, Smith returned to even for the championship and seemed ready to pull away.

“By then,” Russell admitted, “I thought I was playing for second.”

So why not go out in a blaze of glory?

A perfect drive on the par-4 17th and a rainbow of an approach shot yielded a 4-foot birdie. From another driver delivery on the par-5 18th, the Country Club of Vermont golfer pulled out a 3 wood and smacked a 240-yard bullet that rolled past the pin, leaving a 20-footer that Russell knocked home in two putts for a final birdie.

Smith had already slipped with bogeys on 15 and 16 by that time. In a greenside trap on 18, he thinned his escape well over the green, then needed two shots to get on and two more to get in for a closing double-bogey 7. His three-shot lead was history.

“The last playoff — I think the only playoff I was in — was in the junior club championship when I was 12 at Champlain, and I think I was tied at 80,” joked Smith, who shot 70-69-77-71. “But once I got in the groove, it was fun.”

Neither Smith nor Russell had much of a chance to end the tournament until playoff hole No. 5, Burlington’s fifth, a 490-yard par-5 that long hitters can reach in two. Long hitters with drivers. And a good iron game.

Russell’s drive left him with 216 yards to the green, which he covered with a perfect iron approach. Smith, short of the green, chipped 15 feet past it and could only watch as his nemesis birdied with a 35-foot two-putt for the championship.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a playoff, to be honest,” Russell said. “Whether I wanted to or not, I had to lock it up.”

And, when it mattered most, let the big dog eat.

Chip Shots: Hull, who torched the field by six shots at the Vermont Principals Association high school championship last month, took third at 4-over 288. A birdie on 18 would also have put him in the playoff, but he didn’t learn how close he was until after he’d holed out. … The 2-under 69s that Smith shot on Wednesday and Russell matched on Thursday equaled Burlington’s modern club record. The private course underwent a renovation 15 years ago. … Lake Morey’s Zach Temple, the only other Upper Valley golfer to make the cut, finished in fine form with rounds of 76 and 77 to claim a tie for seventh place at 23-over 307. The Hartford High grad played the day with one of his old high school bags. … The University of Hartford, Vermont? It probably should be now that Russell is getting St. Johnsbury Academy’s Alex Rainville and Rutland High’s Max Major as teammates on the Hawks’ men’s golf team at the Connecticut school. “I’m really looking forward to having them,” Russell said. “I think they’ll improve the squad tremendously and make it a lot more competitive through the whole roster. And they’re great kids, so it’ll be a lot of fun.” … There is one consolation for Smith: Next year’s state am will be at Champlain Country Club near St. Albans, where he learned to play golf, and the 2016 Vermont Am is set for his new home course at Jay Peak Resort. … The last state am Burlington Country Club hosted, in 2003, also required a five-hole playoff, won by Peter Metzler with a par.

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