The old guys are still the kings of the hill on the Capital Region golf scene.
In a battle of the top two ranked players on last year’s Capital Region Amateur Golf Association player of the year points list,
53-year-old Dan Russo of Rolling Hills at Antlers bounced 54-year-old John Vaccaro of Wolferts Roost Country Club, 4-and-3, in the finals of the Tri-County Match Play Championship Sunday at Colonie Golf & Country Club.
It wasn’t always a pretty match, but it was an extremely competitive final.
“I had a funny feeling going into this match that it wasn’t going to be a birdie-fest,” said Russo, the qualifying medalist with a one-over-par 73. “It’s been a long three days.”
There was only one birdie in the final, a conceded two-foot birdie putt for Russo on the ninth hole that gave him a 4-up lead on the front nine.
Russo led by as many as 5-up when he parred the 223-yard, par-3 12th hole, and Vaccaro bogeyed.
Vaccaro, the defending CRAGA player of the year, stayed alive by winning the par-5 13th hole with a par. Russo three-putted for a bogey
Russo received a huge break on the 14th hole. His approach shot on the 445-yard, par-4 hole was pulled left, and the ball hit a tree branch. But it fell onto the green 12 feet away. Russo could have locked up the match with a birdie, but he settled for a par.
Both players parred the par-3 15th hole, securing the title for Russo.
Russo and Vaccaro have dominated the amateur point standings for the last decade, with each winning the player of the year on three or more occasions. But Sunday’s final was a rare matchup between the two long hitters.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played John in a final of a match-play event,” said Russo. “But it’s always fun to play with John. He’s an excellent player who never gives up.”
Russo has won virtually every major championship in the area over the years, including several Tri-County Match Play titles and a couple of CRAGA Stroke Play championships.
“I hi the ball pretty well today,” Russo said. “I had only a few bad swings all day. I think it was a good way to start the year. It’s always good to win.”
Russo, who defeated former Tri-County Match Play champion Jim Welch of Winding Brook Country Club, 2-and-1, in the semifinals, took a 1-up lead with a par on the second hole. His tee shot on the par-5 third hole found the water hazard and he ended up with a bogey, allowing Vaccaro to square the match
Vaccaro bogeyed the fourth hole, handing the lead back to Russo, who made a key up-and-down par on the sixth hole to extend his advantage to 2-up.
Russo’s lead expanded to 3-up on the seventh hole with another fine up-and-down par from the bunker
Vaccaro, who ousted Justin Deitz of The Edison Club, 1-up, on the 21st hole, said his long putter let him down in the final.
“It takes a lot out of you when you’re an old guy and you play two matches in one day. We’ve played a lot of holes in the tournament,” he said.
“I tried hard, but if you don’t make putts against a guy like Dan, you don’t have much of a chance. Dan played great today. I’m hitting the ball well, but I just didn’t make many putts. Still, I’m hitting the ball very well, and I think I’m going to have another very good year.”
In the senior division championship, two-time Gazette County Amateur titlist Bob Cooper of Scotia topped John Donovan of Rolling Hills at Antlers, 4-and-3.
Cooper birdied four of his final seven holes, and was three-under-par for his 15 holes during the finals. It was his second Tri-County Match Play senior division championship. He also won several times in the open division and was the runner-up to Gary Grimaldi last year.
“It was a lot of fun, and I had some great company,” he said. “Both John and I could have had five or six more birdies if we had figured out the greens sooner. Both of us were using too much break. Once we cut the break in half, we started making putts.”
Cooper, who birdied the eighth, 12th, 14th and 15th holes, said now that he is 55 he is looking forward to competing in USGA senior division tournaments like U.S. Senior Amateur. Golfers have to be at least 55 to compete as a senior on the state and national level.
In the senior semifinals, Cooper defeated John Deitz of The Edison Club, 4-and-3, while Donovan ousted Chuck Connolly of Hiland, 3-and-2.