SCHENECTADY — Still the undisputed local king of the hill, ageless Dan Russo has won nearly every major tournament available on just about all the courses in the Capital Region over four decades. He added a new entry to his bulging trophy case Sunday.
The 62-year-old Hagaman native and Schuyler Meadows Club member rebounded from a mediocre front nine with a sizzling 3-under-par 33 on the back side to finish the final round with a 1-under-par 71 and capture his first Schenectady Classic at windy Schenectady Municipal Golf Course.
Russo completed the rare four-day event with a 4-under-par 284 to edge third-round leader Joe Fitzsimmons of Shaker Ridge CC (73-285) and Muni regular Lance Hope (72-285) by a single stroke. It was the third runner-up performance in this event for the hard-luck Hope.
Russo’s first Schenectady Classic triumph is the second big win of the season for the veteran standout. He won his ninth Capital Region Amateur Golf Association Stroke Play Championship earlier this summer at his home course to push his all-time number of area major victories to 19, including two Tri-County Golf Association Stroke Play titles, five TCGA Match Play crowns, two Troy Invitationals and one Times Union Amateur Championship.
Russo’s impressive resume also includes winning his first New York State Golf Association crown at last year’s NYS Senior Amateur Championship, as well as competing in 11 United States Golf Association events. He’ll add to that total with the upcoming U.S. Four-Ball Championship.
But although he played several times at Schenectady Municipal in the Haggerty Two-Man Classic, he wasn’t eligible for the Schenectady Classic, formerly the Gazette Schenectady County Amateur, because until a few years ago only county residents were eligible. Even after the eligibility rules changed, schedule conflicts prevented him from playing here until this year after more than a decade.
He’s glad he finally gave this event a try, especially with the new four-round format, the only one of its kind in the area.
“I never played a four-day individual tournament before,” Russo said. “I only played a team event at the Four-Ball. This is a pretty tough layout. I think we had four different seasons this week. Every day was a different season.”
Russo opened the tournament by sharing the lead with a 71. He pulled out to a four-shot cushion after firing a 67 in the second round, but then he struggled with a 75 on Saturday.
“The last day and a half I couldn’t hit a golf shot,” Russo said. “I tried 500 things. Finally on the ninth hole today, I hit a pretty good drive. I got over my ball and said to myself just forget about everything. I’m a feel player. I just got up and said where it goes, it goes, and I just hit the ball. I ended up with a birdie, and it kind of carried over to the back nine.”
After making the turn at 2-over-par, Russo rolled in three birdies on the back, including consecutive birds on the 12th and 13th holes.
“At some point, you’re going to have a chance to do a flip. That’s the way it is,” said Russo about switching the momentum of his round. “I don’t care who’s playing or on what level. A couple of holes flipped, and you’re back in the tournament. The flip for me was on the ninth and 10th holes. Lance had trouble on 10, and Joe bogeyed nine. I got a little momentum going.”
Hope, a former Troy Invitational champ, was tied for second, just a stroke behind Russo, beginning the final round. He began to surge ahead with a birdie on the second hole and his fifth career hole-in-one on the sixth hole.
“It was a 7-iron from 177 yards,” said Hope. “Although I’ve got five holes-in-one, that was my first here.”
After adding another birdie on the ninth hole, Hope took a two-shot lead over Fitzsimmons and was 5-under-par for the tournament.
But Hope pulled his tee shot into the water hazard on the 10th hole, resulting in a double bogey, and then he struggled to a triple bogey on the 11th hole.
“It was really a bad lie, and I tried to hit a low cut,” Hope explained about his disappointing shot on 11. “I hit it into the water. My drop wasn’t very good, and then my chip took a weird bounce. But I didn’t give up. I knew I had to make a birdie on the last couple of holes.”
Hope didn’t give up, however, and he made things interesting when he rolled in a birdie putt from the fringe on the 18th hole, but Russo two-putted for par to wrap up the title after Fitzsimmons’ long birdie putt came up just short.
“It was a grind, but it was fun,” said Fitzsimmons, who is a former club pro and now a Colonie police officer. The former CRAGA Stroke Play champion was solid all week but couldn’t get his putter to cooperate. He managed just two birdies Sunday despite numerous opportunities. Excellent birdie chances on the 12th, 17th and 18th holes came up empty. A bogey on the par-3 13th hole was also pivotal.
“It was a grind, but it was fun,” Fitzsimmons said. “I never played in a four-day event before. It was windy out there, especially on the back nine. I just didn’t make any putts all week. You’ve got to take advantage of your chances here. I had a lot of birdie putts. I played OK for the four days. I couldn’t get the ball to the hole all week. I love playing this course, but I knew I had to shoot under par to win, and I didn’t,” Fitzsimmons said.
Dan Russo 71-284, Joe Fitzsimmons 73-285, Lance Hope 72-285, Ben Bates 79-288, Jim Mueller 74-292, Travis Koch 75-293, Chad Stoffer 75-294, Jim Welch 86-296, Griff Hunter 74-296, Kyle Adams 77-301, David Hayes 89-305, Mike Stopera 80-305, Clint Lange 87-306.
Reach Bob Weiner at [email protected] or @BobWeiner58 on Twitter.