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Grantham’s Russell Adds to His Trophy Case

  • Grantham's Evan Russell, representing the Country Club of Vermont in Waterbury, follows the path of his drive off the ninth tee at the Country Club of Barre during the final round of the Vermont Amateur on Wednesday. The Kimball Union Academy graduate won his first Vermont Am with a four-round tally of 69-68-71-71--279.<br/><br/>Valley News -- Greg Fennell

    Grantham's Evan Russell, representing the Country Club of Vermont in Waterbury, follows the path of his drive off the ninth tee at the Country Club of Barre during the final round of the Vermont Amateur on Wednesday. The Kimball Union Academy graduate won his first Vermont Am with a four-round tally of 69-68-71-71--279.

    Valley News -- Greg Fennell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Grantham's Evan Russell, right, is embraced by his mother, Mary, while his father, Don, heads toward the Country Club of Barre's clubhouse after the conclusion of the Vermont Amateur on Wednesday. Evan Russell won his first Vermont Am with a four-round tally of 5-under-par 279.<br/><br/>Valley News -- Greg Fennell

    Grantham's Evan Russell, right, is embraced by his mother, Mary, while his father, Don, heads toward the Country Club of Barre's clubhouse after the conclusion of the Vermont Amateur on Wednesday. Evan Russell won his first Vermont Am with a four-round tally of 5-under-par 279.

    Valley News -- Greg Fennell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Grantham's Evan Russell, representing the Country Club of Vermont in Waterbury, follows the path of his drive off the ninth tee at the Country Club of Barre during the final round of the Vermont Amateur on Wednesday. The Kimball Union Academy graduate won his first Vermont Am with a four-round tally of 69-68-71-71--279.<br/><br/>Valley News -- Greg Fennell
  • Grantham's Evan Russell, right, is embraced by his mother, Mary, while his father, Don, heads toward the Country Club of Barre's clubhouse after the conclusion of the Vermont Amateur on Wednesday. Evan Russell won his first Vermont Am with a four-round tally of 5-under-par 279.<br/><br/>Valley News -- Greg Fennell

Barre, Vt. — It doesn’t seem to matter if he sees the challenge coming or he doesn’t. Evan Russell is slamming the door on all of them just the same.

Three weeks ago, the 20-year-old Grantham resident and University of Hartford sophomore didn’t know how close his rivals came to taking his New England Amateur title away until he stepped off the 18th green. On Wednesday, playing the final few holes of the Vermont Golf Association amateur championship at the Country Club of Barre, the test arrived in full view.

Russell witnessed Jay Peak’s Bryan Smith stuff an eagle putt with five holes to go to complete a comeback from a five-shot deficit and tie for the tournament lead. The Kimball Union Academy graduate had an immediate answer: A birdie one hole later for a one-stroke lead that eventually turned into a wire-to-wire, four-shot win (at 5-under-par 279) as Smith faded in the face of what has become a dream summer for Russell.

In addition to his two tournament wins in the past month, Russell — who represented the Country Club of Vermont in Waterbury at the Am — is bound for the U.S. Amateur next week in Massachusetts. But this victory clearly had meaning for the Essex native: “Finally won the one tournament I’ve always wanted,” he posted on Twitter an hour after the tourney ended. “My golf career can now proceed.”

“I get excited,” Russell admitted of tests such as the one Smith, a one-time teaching pro, provided late in a 36-hole final day. “I was a little shocked for, like, a half-second, because I had a three-shot lead going in. … All of a sudden, Bryan was in front of me.”

The tournament’s key moment needed an afternoon to develop, but just a few minutes to dissolve.

Waterlogged a month ago when the VGA announced the Amateur’s postponement, golfers arrived at Barre to a course with modestly thick rough, firm greens and a few spots still recovering from July’s heavy rains. They played o n Wednesday with added company: a frequently stiff wind that kicked scores upward. No one shot better than the back-to-back even-par 71s Russell carded to close the championship.

It also meant Russell would get no opportunity to get distance Smith or primary challenger Eric Lajeunesse over the morning 18. Both lost just one stroke to Russell before lunch, leaving Lajeunesse — CC of Barre champion, Spaulding High Class of 2006 — three back and Smith four back entering the fourth round.

“The two guys behind me are great players,” Russell said. “I thought they were going to make a run, but it was playing tough today. Two even-pars was pretty good.”

Lajuenesse served as Russell’s initial competition, drawing a fair throng of home-course well-wishers for the walk. Luck didn’t come along, however; Lajeunesse bogeyed his third hole (lipping out a par putt), doubled his fifth with an errant drive, rimmed a birdie try on his seventh and never got his challenge on track.

“It seemed like after that short one (on No. 3) missed, I kept grinding and grinding and just couldn’t get anything to fall,” said Lajeunesse, who claimed third place at 7-over 291. “It’s frustrating. I kind of got tired coming down the stretch.”

Smith only got better.

With his wife of less than a week, Emily, on the scene — the two married on Saturday — Smith stuck back-to-back birdie putts on 10 and 11 to carve two strokes off Russell’s lead, to which Russell added with an 11th-hole bogey. That left Smith two shots back as he walked up to No. 14, the only par-5 on the tournament’s back side.

Smith reached the green in two, leaving his ball pin-high and 15 feet to the left. A long consultation with caddie (and Barre member) Zach Dukette yielded a path to the hole, which Smith followed to fist-pumping, face-mashing perfection — an eagle 3 to tie for the tourney lead.

“I wasn’t making the most aggressive swings this morning; it was a pretty defensive round, which is not good for out here in these conditions,” said Smith, who regained his amateur status last October after a half-dozen years as a teaching pro. “Hit a great drive; hit a 6-iron absolutely beautifully (to the green). I don’t think I’ve had that straight a putt on this course all week.”

Russell had pulled his drive left and had wedged back to the fairway on 14 when he saw — and heard — Smith’s reaction.

“I think I took the lead for granted for a while, really … and more so when I saw Bryan’s reaction on (14),” Russell recalled. “I’d just been leading the whole tournament and took it for granted, I guess. I was playing for par more than birdie.”

That changed in a hurry.

Trying to avoid trees down the right, Russell used an iron to split the fairway on the par-4 15th, stuck his approach to 10 feet and buried the birdie putt, just his second of the day. Combined with Smith’s three-putt bogey one group earlier, the tie quickly turned into a two-shot Russell lead.

The edge increased to three when Smith (1-under 283) again three-putted from the rear fringe on the downhill par-3 16th for another bogey. Russell didn’t make Smith pay there, leaving his birdie try on the cup’s edge, but he canned a 30-foot birdie putt on 18 anyway to cap the win.

“He just hit the ball solid all day, besides a few shots,” said Lajeunesse, Russell’s partner for all 36 holes. “He just made the putts that he needed to. His short game was on point. I think he may have three-putted once. He just doesn’t give any shots away.”

Russell never saw what Rhode Island’s Brad Valois was doing at the New England Am, eventually holding on for a one-shot win at Green Mountain National Golf Course. But he saw Smith this time, and he answered just the same.

See door. Slam door.

Chip Shots: In addition to his CC of Vermont membership, Russell also plays out of Eastman Golf Links, which he’ll represent at the U.S. Am at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., beginning on Monday. Russell earned his invitation by sharing the medal at a 36-hole qualifier on Cape Cod last week. … Russell led after the first round of the 2007 Vermont Am at Brattleboro Country Club — as a 14-year-old. … VGA officials reversed Barre’s nines, meaning the real front nine was the back nine for tournament week, and vice versa. It left most golfers confused on how to refer to the holes as they recounted their rounds. … Killington’s Garren Poirier, who rallied to claim fourth place at 9-over 293, rocked the course in a pair of hot pink slacks. … The Upper Valley’s other three survivors all finished back in the pack. J.P. Larkin’s Zach Temple, a recent Hartford High graduate, tied for 17th place at 23-over 307 (77-76-79-75), while Hanover High teammates Nate Choukas (79-76-82-71) and Ben Hayes (80-70-81-77) shared 20th place at 308. All three are exempt from qualifying for next year’s state am for finishing in the top 30. … The 2014 Vermont Amateur will be staged at Burlington Country Club.

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