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Tag-Team Tourney: Vt. Open Requiring the Work of Two Courses

Lebanon's Joe Toland, of Hanover Country Club, wraps up his putting practice prior to the start of his first round at the New England Amateur golf championship at Green Mountain National Golf Club in Killington, Vt., on July 16, 2013. Toland returns to GMNGC today — as a professional — for the start of the Vermont Open.

Valley News -- Greg Fennell

Lebanon's Joe Toland, of Hanover Country Club, wraps up his putting practice prior to the start of his first round at the New England Amateur golf championship at Green Mountain National Golf Club in Killington, Vt., on July 16, 2013. Toland returns to GMNGC today — as a professional — for the start of the Vermont Open. Valley News -- Greg Fennell

Killington, Vt. — There’s a collective responsibility to running any golf tournament. The folks behind the Jeff Julian Memorial Vermont Open are only taking it up a couple of notches this week.

Following through on a decision to move the event because of winter damage to normal host Lake Morey Country Club, a field of nearly 150 professional and amateur golfers descends upon Green Mountain National Golf Course today for the start of the 54-hole championship. The pile includes defending Open champion Michael Welch and a host of Vermont and New Hampshire amateurs who were expecting Lake Morey’s come-and-get-me layout but are getting GMNGC’s don’t-forget-the-insect-repellent forestry tour instead.

“We’ve got woods left and right on essentially every hole,” Green Mountain director of golf Dave Soucy noted last week. “One line that we use here is that we are nestled in the heart of the Green Mountain National Forest, and that’s where your ball will land if it’s not in the fairway.”

It’s just the second time winter course damage — particularly to the greens — has forced Lake Morey to find an alternative site for its five-decade-old tournament. St. Johnsbury Country Club took over in 2009; it couldn’t help out this time because of similar damage, leaving Green Mountain National to offer its services.

Lake Morey director of golf Bill Ross Jr.’s crew is handling the mechanics of the tournament, with Vermont Golf Association officials contributing rules interpretations. Soucy’s staff is making sure the course, which will play to a par of 71 over roughly 6,600 yards, is in prime condition.

“We have quite a bit of pride in running the Vermont Open and making sure it’s professional and making sure people have a good time, and that hasn’t changed, really,” Ross said. “It’s important for us, just from the Vermont Open point of view, to conduct it every year whether we’re in perfect shape or not.”

Still-young Green Mountain National, on Vermont Route 100 about six miles north of the ski resort, is used to being in such service. The first event it hosted at its 2001 opening was a tournament for the women’s minor-league Futures (now Symetra) Tour; the circuit made regular GMNGC stops for seven years.

Soucy’s course entertained the region’s best amateurs at last summer’s New England Amateur, and an American Junior Golf Association tournament is scheduled there next week. When it comes to big events, Soucy’s crew has been there and done that.

“It’s not bad; Bill and his staff are doing a lot of the stuff,” Soucy said. “Certainly, our maintenance person, Peter Bissell, is working hard and doing everything he and the crew can to get the course in shape. When we hold big events like the New England Am and the AJGA event the following week, we don’t do much to the golf course. Essentially, the conditions the major tournaments play in are the same that people come and play in every day.”

There’s always one golfer new to Lake Morey who sees the course’s short length (6,024 yards off the tips) and thinks he’ll shoot 60 each day over the 54-hole tournament. Inevitably, Morey’s narrow fairways and tiny, old-style New England greens serve as an equalizer, and the tournament champ comes in with a score in the 10-below-par range.

Because Green Mountain National is a different animal, Soucy is expecting scores to run a little higher this week. Trees line almost every hole. Elevation changes dominate. Where Lake Morey’s greens tend to be flat with minimal visible undulation, GMNGC’s putting surfaces — in Bissell’s parlance, according to Soucy — resemble “potato chips.”

“It’s up and down,” Soucy added. “You have to hit the right area where the pin is to have makeable birdie putts.”

Where timing didn’t help Lake Morey recover in time to be the tournament’s normal host, it is aiding in the makeup of the field.

Welch returns after winning his second Vermont Open championship at Morey last June in a playoff. His 2014 season has gotten off to a good start as well, with a runner-up finish at the Cape Cod Open on June 5 followed by a tie for eighth at the Massachusetts Open last week.

The latter tourney required a four-player, three-hole-aggregate playoff to determine its champ last Thursday. The winner, Ian Thimble, is in the Vermont Open field, as is one of the unfortunate playoff runners-up, Connecticut’s Kyle Gallo. The 2012 Vermont Open champ, New Hampshire pro Rich Berberian Jr., is also set to tee it up today.

Top amateurs in the field include Rutland’s Drake Hull, whose 6-under-par 66 at Vermont National two weeks ago blew away the competition at the Vermont Principals Association state championship. A host of former high school golfers from Hanover (Nate Choukas, Benny Hayes), Lebanon (Zach Pollard) and Hartford (Zach Temple, now-professional Joe Toland) are also on the tee sheet.

“We’re excited about hosting it,” Soucy said. “I’m glad that Bill and the Vermont Golf Association took us up on the offer, and the staff is looking forward to having people come play the course. The community is chipping in with volunteers, even on short notice. It should be a good event.”

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