Match Play: Lob shot keys Gifford’s win

The turning point was a clutch lob shot to a short-sided pin.
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The turning point was a clutch lob shot to a short-sided pin.

When Jim Gifford found that his approach shot on the ninth hole sailed over the green, leaving him a precarious pitch shot with little room between himself and the pin, he knew he was in trouble.

“I walked up to the shot and mumbled that it wasn’t goIng to be easy. I knew I had to land the ball on the fringe, or it would roll off the green. But after I made the shot, I still had to make the putt, which was about a six-footer. It was the best up and down of the day,” said Gifford, who went on to beat Robby Bigley Jr., 4-and-3, in the championship match of the Tri-County Golf Association Match Play Championship Sunday at Colonie Country Club.

“You could see Robby was deflated after that. He probably thought he could even up the match on that hole, and I end up going 2-up on him.”

Gifford, a member of The Edison Club, went on to win the next three holes to secure a 5-up lead on Bigley, who stopped the bleeding with an eight-foot birdie putt on the 13th hole. Gifford found a bunker on the next hole, but he got up and down to match Bigley’s par. The match ended when both players bogeyed the 15th hole.

“I had a tough time reading the speed of the greens on the first

couple of holes,” said Bigley. “I was a little shaky at the start.”

Gifford didn’t need to putt that well early in the match because Bigley couldn’t keep his tee shots in the fairway.

Gifford won the first hole with a routine par after Bigley pushed his drive into the right rough, behind some trees. His second shot hit a tree branch, and he pitched onto the green in three before two-putt­ing for bogey.

Bigley, a Siena College graduate and a member of Pinehaven Country Club, found a bunker on the par-3 second hole and settled for a bogey, but Gifford three-putted for a bogey of his own. Another Gifford three-putt bogey on the par-5 third hole was good enough to halve the hole, after Bigley once again missed the fairway with his tee shot and then hit a tree root with his second shot. He eventually bogeyed the hole.

But Bigley, a two-time Gazette County Amateur champion, evened the match with a six-foot birdie on the fourth hole.

There was no change in the match until the 325-yard, par-4 eighth hole. Bigley, one of the Cap­ital Region’s longest hitters, tried to drive the green, and he once again found himself in the right rough, near some trees. His low pitch show sailed over the green on the opposite side.

Gifford’s tee shot landed just short of the green, and he chipped up to five feet, setting up a birdie putt that gave him a 1-up advantage.

“When Robby blocked that tee shot on No. 8, I knew I had a chance to get back in front. The key holes for me ended up being the eighth, ninth and 10th holes,” he said.

Gifford, the 2006 Saratoga County Amateur champion, followed up his key up and down on the ninth hole with a birdie on the 10th hole to go 3-up. Pars on the 11th and 12th holes were good enough to extend his lead to 5-up after Bigley got behind some trees on the 11th hole and hit his tee shot into the water hazard on the par-3 12th.

“I like match play, and I like it even more after this weekend,” said Gifford, who had to defeat his father, Mike, and five-time Tri-County champion Dan Russo of Rolling Hills at Antlers to get a shot at Bigley.

“Match play is more of a mind game than anything. Sometimes, you have to force things. A good example was that ninth hole. In stroke play, I would have been more conservative, but in match play, you can try a crazy shot

“This win is right up there as the best thing I’ve done, so far,” he said. “Qualifying for sectionals in the U.S. Open and winning the Saratoga County Amateur were my previous best highlights, but this win is more than just one county.”

Bigley, the defending Edison

Invitational champion, admitted that he had difficulties driving the ball, but he didn’t think that was necessarily the key to the match.

“Jim played well, and he made the big putts. That was a key up and down on No. 9,” he said. “When I got 2-down, maybe I tried to press a little. But from the eighth through the 12th holes, Jim made the plays, and I didn’t.”

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