Down the Fairway: Qualifier challenges top shooters

The dream begins Monday, when 58 players — 28 amateurs and 30 pros — compete for four qualifying ber

The closest thing to a grass-roots tournament among golf’s four

“majors” is the U.S. Open.

If you are a good player — and I mean a really, really good player who is either a professional or quality amateur with a handicap index of no higher than 1.4, you can tee it up for a chance to play with the big boys.

The dream begins Monday, when 58 players — 28 amateurs and 30 pros — compete for four qualifying berths in the U.S. Open Local Qualifier at Colonie Country Club in Voorheesville. There are also two alternate spots available.

Those four qualifiers advance to sectional qualifying, beginning on June 2 at 13 sites. The sectionals are even tougher than the local qual­ifier, and are 36 holes rather than 18. The best players from the sectional qualifiers advance to the U.S. Open, to be played June 12-15 at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego.

One of the most interesting pairings Monday is the Dan Russo-Frank Mellet tandem, which tees off second at 8:10 a.m. Russo, from Rolling Hills at Antlerls Country Club, recently turned 50. He is a two-time Capital Region area points champion with five Tri-County Golf Association titles on his resume. Mellet is the host club pro.

“I haven’t tried for the U.S. Open very often. I don’t know why,” said Russo, who teamed with fellow Rolling Hills member Bill Sullivan to win the Stadium Classic earlier this month. “I should have played in a lot of national tounaments when I was younger, but I never did. It’s not as easy as everyone thinks.”

Russo would love to qualify, because at his age, he knows he won’t have too many more opportunities.

“I’m sure they will set up the course at the full distance, and I’m sure they will tuck some pins,” he said. “For me, personally, I’ve played only one really good round of golf this year, and that was at the Gazette Cup. I’m struggling, and I’m not sure why. I have no confidence at all. But playing with Frank is a good pairing. I’ve known him for a long time. He’s a great guy and a great competitor who really knows the game.

“I’d definitely like a chance to go to the sectionals. It’s such a far-fetched thing to get in the U.S. Open itself, but for me, it would be a competitive round of golf.”

Anyone who competed in last weekend’s Tri-County Match Play Championship at Colonie CC should be well prepared.

“It helps playing there as recently as we did,” Russo said. “At least I have an idea where not to hit it. The question is whether I can hit it where I’m supposed to.”

Another familiar name looking forward to Monday is Bryan Bigley, the former Pinehaven Country Club member and Siena College standout. Bigley’s last big win as an amateur was the 2007 Gazette Men’s County Amateur Golf Championship. He has since turned professional and is playing on the Tar Heel Tour in South Carolina.

“I’ve qualified for the next stage twice,” said Bigley. “I’m playing all right, but I’m also working a lot at a club down here. I’m working a 45-hour week, and it’s tough getting time off to play. It will be fun to come back home and see everyone, though. I haven’t played in a tournament in about a month. It’s been quiet tournament wise, because I couldn’t take any time off.”

Bigley is paying his way by working as an assistant superintendent and by giving some golf lessons.

“I dabble with it. I don’t really know the golf swing that well, but I know enough,” he said. “My boss manages this little driving range, and a guy came in looking for a guy who could give him lessons. I volunteered. It was satisfying working with someone who showed some improvement right away. It felt good.”

Bigley, like Russo, expects Col­onie CC to have a challenging setup.

“The qualifiers are usually set up decently, but sometimes, the pins can be tough. Usually, the weather is cold and rainy, and I think the forecast is the same. The key is to stay away from big errors. You can go out and shoot even-par, and you usually get in. That’s why a lot of guys from out of the area come here to try to qualify. They think our area is easy.”

A star-studded field will be on hand, including amateurs Jon-

Michael Socaris of Capital Hills, Andrew Marler from the host course, Jim Cocca of Shaker Ridge CC, Chad Stoffer, Justin Deitz, Joe Macaluso and Jim Gifford from The Edison Club, Ryan Prinzo of Normanside CC, Aaron AuBuchon of Saratoga Golf & Polo Club, John Bogardus of Sycamore Country Club, Steve Quilinan Jr. and Dave Mooradian of the Country Club of Troy, Ryan Simpson of Ballston Spa CC and John Vaccaro of Wolferts Roost CC.

Among the top area professionals competing are Glenn Davis of Albany Country Club, former Saratoga National assistant pro Bob Cain, former Colonie CC assistant Trevor Jaycox, Capital Hills head pro Steve Vatter, Orchard Creek head pro Tom Oppedisano, and The Edison Club assistant pro John Neet .

Ron Philo Jr., a Scotia native living in Amelia Island, Fla., is also in the field. Philo, a former winner of the National Professional Champ­ionship at Turning Stone Resort, is the son of former local club pro Ron Philo and the brother of LPGA Tour standout Laura Diaz.

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