Even without his favorite weapon, Jim Gifford is continuing to enjoy one of his best seasons on the links in recent memory.
Gifford, the long-hitting former Shenendehowa High School and Siena College golfing standout, lost his favorite driver recently, and he’s frantically searching for a new one that fits his game. But even with some borrowed and/or experimental big sticks, he’s been adding to his impressive resume with several excellent performances.
Gifford, 33, hasn’t played much tournament golf in the last several seasons, mostly because he and his wife have been adding to their family. Their daughter is 2 1/2 years old now, and his son is just 4 months old.
Because of work and family commitments, he didn’t compete in the Saratoga County Amateur for the past three seasons, but he finally returned to one of his favorite events and captured his fifth title last weekend at Eagle Crest Golf Club and The Edison Club, respectively. His other triumphs came in 2006, 2010, 2013 and 2016.
Not only did he return to the top in his county championship, but he also teamed up with Jim Welch to win the Shaker Ridge Invitational, and also paired with Dan Russo to win the Little Brown Jug Two-Man crown.
“It’s been pretty good this year,” Gifford said. “I’ve had quite a bit of success in the last four or five weeks by winning a couple of two-man events. But it hasn’t been pretty. My driver cracked at the Jug in the middle of that tournament. I tried different drivers in the County Am, but they didn’t really work out the way I wanted to, and I didn’t make a putt for two days.
“But it’s been a busy summer after a slow start,” Gifford noted. “Once they canceled all the USGA events and state tournaments, I didn’t play much golf early. But then they revamped the schedule, and I kind of got asked to play in a few two-man events. That got me going. In both of the team events that we won, we triumphed in playoffs. We got to feel the stress of hitting shots under pressure, and that’s definitely what competitive golf is all about.”
Gifford is one of the few “younger guns” to give his good friend Russo a consistent challenge in recent years. He has won a Tri-County Match Play Championship, several Edison Invitationals and also finished in the top five in numerous New York State Golf Association events. He is most proud of the two USGA national events he qualified for, the USGA Four-Ball Championship with partner Chad Stoffer and the U.S. Mid-Amateur.
He and Russo are headed to play in the Berkshire Hills Two-Man in October, and they are also going to attempt to qualify for the USGA Four-Ball again.
“We always have fun playing together,” Gifford said of him and Russo, the Capital Region’s all-time leader in major tournament victories. “We kind of mesh well together. Our personalities and our games complement each other. He’s been the best player in our area for as long as I can remember. He’s fun to watch and to play with. I love to see how consistently he still hits the ball.
“I’m looking forward to playing with Dan again at Berkshire Hills,” Gifford added. “I’ll figure out something with my driver. I’ve got a driving iron in my bag if I need it. I can hit the 2-iron 250, 260 yards, so I’ll figure out something. I’ll see Scott Berliner [Saratoga Spa Golf Course assistant pro] and see if we can get something ordered, but I’ve got to customize it for my game.”
Meanwhile, Eagle Crest Golf Club owner/general manager Bill Paulsen Jr., recovering from hip replacement surgery earlier this season, won his 11th Saratoga County Amateur senior division title.
A SPECIAL VICTORY
Justin Hearley dedicated his victory in this week’s Northeastern New York PGA Match Play Championship to the late Doug Evans, the section’s tournament director and assistant executive director who died recently of a heart attack while administrating a Player Abilities Test at Schenectady Municipal Golf Course.
Hearley, 30, an assistant pro at Normanside Country Club, added to perhaps his best season by knocking off Mohawk Golf Club head pro Jeremy Kerr, 5-and-4, in the finals Wednesday at Colonie Golf & Country Club. He earned a check for $2,200.
Hearley, who is second to Scott Berliner on the NENY PGA Player of the Year points list, earned his first major championship in the section with some spectacular play, including five birdies (one conceded) and an eagle. He never trailed after rolling in a 35-foot, late-breaking birdie putt on the opening hole. He tacked on birdies on the third (thanks to a drive of 350 yards , leaving him an approach shot of just 137 yards), fifth and eighth holes to stretch his advantage to 4-up. Hearley picked up another hole on No. 10 when Kerr got into some tree trouble — hitting three different trees trying to escape from the woods in the left rough. Kerr then conceded the hole to Hearley before the CBA and SUNY Delhi grad even had a chance to hit his approach shot.
After Kerr won his only hole of the match with a par on the 12th hole, Hearley eagled the par-5 13th to push his advantage back to five holes. Both players bogeyed the 14th hole, ending the match.
“That was for Doug,” Hearley said after the match. “That was my first major victory, although I won the Assistants Match Play Championship a few years ago. I tried to keep the ball in play for the most part, and I made some putts that I don’t normally make. I just wanted to control the tee, hit some good shots and force Jeremy to do the same.
“I never considered myself a good match play player, but my hot putter changed things today,” Hearley said. “I made some good birdie putts, as well as some good 4- to 5 footers for par. I’m definitely very happy, but I’m upset at the loss of Doug. Not seeing Doug’s face here was hard. He’s always been there for us right from the start. He was a great guy. This is a major loss for the section and for Capital Region golf in general. He gave his life to golf.”
Hearley, who marked all of his golf balls with Evans’ favorite quote, “You Got It,” said when he first heard the news about Evans he immediately asked his wife to let him hug their 1-month old son, Caiden. “It shows you the true priorities,” he said.
This was the second runner-up finish in a row for the 47-year-old Kerr, who was a dominant player in the section as an assistant pro at Shaker Ridge CC years ago before becoming the longtime head pro at Mohawk.
“Some time I’ll get it right,” Kerr said with a chuckle. “I love match play. It suits my game. I won 18 straight matches back in 2001 through 2003. I’m playing more now, and that helps.”
Kerr won the regular NENY PGA Match Play crown in 2003, and was the Assistants Association Match Play titlist in 2001-2003. He was the Assistants Association Stroke Play winner in 1996, 2002 and 2005.
Kerr said he’s able to tee it up more after Mohawk’s new owner, Mike Rutherford, took over the pro shop, allowing Kerr to concentrate on playing and teaching.
Like all of his peers, Kerr said he missed not seeing Evans out on the course running the tournament.
“Everybody played with a heavy heart this week. It was shocking and saddening,” Kerr said.
“But Justin played awesome today, He did everything well, from his tee shots, to his irons, to his short game and his putts. He deserved to win.”
Kerr advanced to the final with a 1-up victory over CC of Pittsfield head pro Eric Mabee, who had five birdies on the front nine. Hearley beat former Match Play champion Scott Battiste of Eagle Crest Golf Club, 1-up, in 20 holes.
Airway Meadows will hold its 21st annual Oktoberfest on Oct. 11. Entry fee is $118 for non-members riding solo in a cart, or $115 for non-members sharing a cart. Entry fee includes Continental breakfast, lunch at the turn (hot dogs, chips, soda and draft beer) and a steak dinner with German side dishes. There will be three or four flights divided into men, women and seniors (age 65 and older). Call 518-792-4144 for more information.
The NENY PGA has changed the site of its Omega Tour Championship from Berkshire Hills CC to Wyantenuck CC on Oct. 6-7. The top 20 NENY PGA pros from the Player of the Year list earn free entry. Other NENY PGA Class A pros can register to compete in the season finale for $200.
The Bill Moll Triple Play Championship, named after the late local standout who won three Schenectady Classic crowns, five Schenectady Senior Classics, the Eagle Crest Shootout and numerous Eagle Crest club championships, is set for Monday at Eagle Crest Golf Club. The 27-hole event will feature nine holes of two-man scramble, nine holes of two-man alternate shot and nine holes of two-man best-ball. Entry fee is $240 per team.
Teams in this gross-only event can have two amateurs or one amateur and one pro. There is already a banner field signed up, including pros such as Eagle Crest head pro Scott Battiste, nine-time NENY PGA Player of the Year Scott Berliner of Saratoga Spa Golf Course, CRAGA Stroke Play and Schenectady Classic champ Dan Russo and his teammate, former pro Joe Fitzsimmons of Shaker Ridge CC. Call the Eagle Crest pro shop at 518-877-7802 to see if there are any more openings.
Briar Creek Golf Course’s annual October-Fest is set for Friday. The four-person scramble will have a 10 a.m. shotgun start and a 9 a.m. registration and Continental breakfast. Entry fee is $70 per golfer and includes cart, lunch and dinner. Beer and soda will also be provided. Call 518-355-6145 to reserve your group.
Mark Armstrong shot below his age with a 73 while competing in the Bugundi league at Schenectady Municipal Golf Course.
Mike Lawson aced the 141-yard fifth hole with a 7-iron at Stadium Golf Club.
At the Edison Club, Kim Skiba collected her first hole-in-one with a 9-iron on the 11th hole.
Bill Ebert aced the 173-yard ninth hole with a 5-wood at Airway Meadows Golf Club.
George Lindemann swung an 8-iron from 115 yards to ace the 11th hole at Mechanicville Golf Club.
At Amsterdam Municipal Golf Course, Bob Kelly aced the eighth hole with an 8-iron.
Also at Amsterdam Municipal, Joe Torani holed out on the 13th hole for his first hole-in-one.
Rick Mitchell recorded a hole-in-one on the 17th hole at Ballston Spa Country Club.
At Western Turnpike, Chandra Dixit used a 7-iron for a hole-in-one on the 191-yard eighth hole on the blue nine.
Harry Morgan eagled both the third and 10th holes during the same round at Amsterdam Municipal Golf Course this week.
Stan Dybas also eagled the 10th hole at Amsterdam Municipal.
Bob Bartow of Rotterdam registered an eagle-2 on the par-4 second hole at Canajoharie Golf & Country Club with a pitching wedge from 68 yards out.
Joe Aragona, 77, posted his first career eagle on the second hole en route to a 42 at Schenectady Municipal Golf Course. Aragona reached the green with a 5-wood and sank the eagle putt.
Jim Geiger eagled the par-5 10th hole at Amsterdam Municipal Golf Course
Reach Bob Weiner at [email protected] or @BobWeiner58 on Twitter.