Ahead of the Pack: St. Johnsbury’s Alex Rainville Gets First Pro Win at Vermont Open

  • Alex Rainville watches his drive during the Vermont Open in Fairleee, Vt., on June 20, 2018. Rainville won the tournament. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Golfer John Elliott, is shushed by his son Blake Elliott, 11, while another competitor was teeing off. Blake was taking on the role of caddy at the Vermont Open at the Lake Morey Country Club in Fairlee, Vt., on June 20, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • Golfer Peter French gets out the a sand trap during the second day of the Vermont Open in Fairlee, on June 20, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ken and Betty Lewis, of Springfield, Vt., watch putting on ninth green during the Vermont Open at the Lake Morey Country Club in Fairlee, Vt., on June 20, 2018. Both used to golf and enjoy watching the sport now. Ken won the Vermont Amateur Championship in 1963. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 6/21/2018 12:28:08 AM
Modified: 6/21/2018 12:30:22 AM

Fairlee — Alex Rainville expected to birdie the second, seventh and ninth holes of Lake Morey Country Club to open the final round of the Jeff Julian Memorial Vermont Open on Wednesday. One more unexpected birdie on the front nine helped make him a champion.

Holding a two-stroke lead entering the day, the St. Johnsbury, Vt., native played 4-under-par golf on Lake Morey’s front side to build a five-shot lead, and it proved just enough to win the tournament and its $5,000 first prize. It’s the first professional victory for Rainville, who recently turned pro after graduating from Miami’s Johnson & Wales University, and came in his third pro start.

Philadelphia-area native Cole Willcox, just two years into a playing career delayed by a stint in the financial world, pressured Rainville on Lake Morey’s back nine, gaining four shots in five holes late in his round to reduce the deficit to a single stroke. Rainville buckled down upon learning of his narrowed margin and finished with a series of by-the-book pars to prevail.

Rainville carded an 11-under-par tally of 199 (68-65-66) for the victory. Willcox stayed a shot back, and Lebanon amateur Pat Pelletier, a former Lake Morey assistant pro, tied with Massachusetts pro and 2008 tournament winner Jim Renner for third at 204.

“It’s definitely a little better bonus than club credit, that’s for sure, or a trophy, I guess,” said Rainville, who tied for fifth overall and shared low amateur honors at last year’s Vermont Open. “It’s tricky; I didn’t have any bogeys today, which is nice, but you’re going to make a bogey. You think it’s easy, but the pins are really tight. You’re probably going to make a bogey, but there are holes where you’re going to get it back.”

On any course, the par-5s are ordinarily the best places to make up lost ground. Rainville ate up Morey’s back-to-back par-3s, Nos. 6 and 7, and the two holes secured his Vermont Open crown.

Neither appears particularly daunting. The sixth plays 173 yards over a small valley to a green protected only by a slope in front, a trap to the right and trees behind. The seventh is Lake Morey’s pitch-and-putt, a downhill 119-yarder with sand in the back. Both require a deft touch off the tee and an accurate putt, and Rainville had both.

Playing partner and 1996 winner John Elliott was within two strokes of Rainville when they arrived at No. 6. Both hit the green. Rainville jarred a 20-foot putt from below the hole, while Elliott couldn’t quite knock down a 16-foot slider from the left.

Similar fortune — or misfortune — followed at No. 7. Rainville left his ball 8 feet below the cup and sank the putt. Elliott, having already had one birdie putt lip out earlier in the round, watched his attempt on No. 7 hit the back of the cup and bounce out.

“I told my son we’ve got to get birdies, because (Alex) is playing good,” said Elliott, who was accompanied the entire day by his 11-year-old son, Blake. “But I just kept missing and missing and missing.”

Rainville added a final birdie on No. 9 from 6 feet for a front-side 30 to sit at 11 under, up five strokes with nine holes to go.

“The one on the sixth hole was kind of a bonus; that was a good birdie,” Rainville said. “Then I got one up on 7 and 9, so it worked out good.”

And a good thing, too, because someone was about to charge.

In a three-way tie with Elliott and defending champ Peter French two strokes behind Rainville at the day’s start, Willcox shook off an opening bogey to convert two sets of back-to-back birdies on a front-side 31. Two bogeys to open the back nine dropped the 30-year-old University of Virginia graduate five shots off the pace before the light went on.

“I’d actually been playing great all day; all week, even,” said Willcox, a 2011 UVa. grad and four-year member of the Cavaliers’ golf team. “I made some stupid bogeys. I made a bogey from 70 yards in the middle of the fairway on 10, and I flagged a wedge on 11 that hit right next to the cup and kicked over the green and made another bogey. But I told myself if I could get to 10 (under), I’d post a number and see what happens.”

Willcox (69-66-65) got his number with short birdie conversions on four of his next five holes, starting with the par-5 12th, to serve notice. Rainville had his chances to gain comfort, particularly with back-to-back three-putt pars on 12 and 13, but nine consecutive pars after the turn proved adequate.

Neither Elliott nor French mounted a significant challenge. Elliott dropped out of contention with a double-bogey 6 on the tight 14th, eventually winding up in a six-way logjam at 206 (65-70-71), and French struggled to find his swing on a day in which he found only four of 13 fairways.

“I just kind of got off to a bad start, and it kept going from there,” said French, who tied for 13th at 208 (66-69-73). “Al got off to a good start, and then you push, you push. A gasket can blow. I’ll take it; it is what it is, and I’ll move forward.”

Rainville became only the second Vermonter to win the state open, the other being fellow St. Johnsbury native Trevor Murphy in 2007. The two are also the only Green Mountaineers to win both the Vermont Open and Vermont Amateur; Rainville claimed the latter two years ago.

“I just always thought it was fun when I was an amateur; I always wanted to win it as an amateur,” Rainville said of Wednesday’s conquest. “But to win it my first time as a pro, that works pretty good for me, too.”

Divots: Karen Julian, sister of the tournament’s namesake, followed Elliott throughout the day. The Julians — several of whom still live at or near the clan’s Norwich farm — got to know Elliott over his many visits to Fairlee, and she said someone from the family tries to support Elliott whenever he competes at Lake Morey. Jeff Julian, a two-time PGA Tour competitor and lifelong Norwich resident, died from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2004. … Jeff Julian’s longtime caddy, Artie Kupidloski, also followed Elliott for part of the day. … Elliott and his son made for entertaining viewing. Blake occasionally put his hand over his dad’s mouth to keep him quiet while his playing partners took shots. Dad lightheartedly teased his caddy/son for occasion mishaps in reading yardages or choosing clubs. … Willcox decided to go into finance shortly after leaving Charlottesville in 2011, but he found the work a grind and decided to return to the links as a professional golfer last year. “I enjoyed it, but we get to see some cool places and travel to some cool places out here,” said Willcox, who tied for fifth at last year’s Open. “It’s more of an individual-type lifestyle, and I like that. It’s cool.” … Pelletier shots rounds of 69-67-68 to claim his first Vermont Open low amateur title. The Lebanon High School graduate regained his amateur status last year. “I’ve been hitting it pretty good the last couple of weeks,” he said. “Lately, all I’ve been working on is putting and chipping, especially here because it’s where you make your strokes up out here.” Pelletier next competes in a New Hampshire Amateur qualifier at Concord Country Club on Monday. … Dartmouth College men’s golf coach Rich Parker was in the 13th-place group at 208 (69-71-68). Kimball Union Academy graduate Evan Russell slipped to a share of 32nd place at 214 (69-71-74). Zachary Temple (T-50; 73-72-73), Nate Choukas (T-56; 74-73-73) and Ryan Landgraf (62; 70-77-78) rounded out Upper Valley representation.

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

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