Scott Berliner isn’t used to mediocrity.
By his own admission, the Cobleskill Golf & Country Club assistant pro hasn’t played as well as he expected to this season, but he thinks he may have turned the corner.
Berliner, who is not only the two-time defending Northeastern New York PGA Stroke Play champion, but also the section’s Player of the Year over the last two seasons, fired a one-under-par 71 to grab the first-round lead in the club pros’ most prestigious event Monday at Albany Country Club.
Wyantenuck Country Club head pro Tom Sullivan was a shot behind with an even-par 72, while Cobleskill G&CC head pro Paul Jaycox, Colonie Golf & Country Club assistant Ian Breen and Saratoga Golf & Polo Club head pro Kevin Hughes each finished with 73.
“It’s nice to shoot under par for a change. It’s been a while,” said Berliner, who has dominated the section since he obtained his Class A card and earned full playing privileges in 2011.
In 2011, he won the Player of the Year title by nearly 1,000 points over runner-up Breen. Last year, he was roughly 600 points ahead of Bob Mucha of Greenock Country Club.
But this year, Berliner is trailing Frank Mellet of Colonie Golf & Country Club in the point standings.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve played horrible this year,” said Berliner, a Luzerne native who has held assistant pro positions at numerous Capital Region courses, including Shaker Ridge Country Club and Normanside Country Club.
“I’ve been pretty inconsistent all year.”
Berliner said part of the problem was a change in his grip, which was necessitated by an injured knuckle.
“I made a small grip change because of the pressure I was putting on one of my knuckles with my old grip,” he said. “When I hit the ball with my old grip, there was a lot of force on the knuckle, and I think I had some ligament damage. It’s taken quite a while to get used to the change, even though it’s only a small one. Every time I get a chance, I work on my grip to get my feel back.”
Berliner said he hit the ball extremely well, and he also putted well during the opening round, but he added that it wasn’t easy to score on Albany CC’s demanding greens.
“I putted well, but I got myself above the hole a few times, and I had to putt defensively,” he said. “I was really rolling it pretty well, but if you get on the wrong side of the pin, you can’t play aggressively.
“We had a lot of tough pins on the front of the greens today. If you’re not in the fairway, you can’t stop the ball by landing it close to the pin.”
Berliner birdied the second, seventh and 18th holes. He three-putted for bogey on the fourth hole and also bogeyed the 13th.
“I drove it OK, except for a few tee shots when I tried to get too much out of my driver,” he said.
“I really didn’t take advantage of the par-5s the way I should have. A couple of times, I got into trouble, and although I made par, I should have better opportunities for birdies.”
Berliner is also the three-time defending Assistants Player of the Year.
Sullivan used his extraordinary short game to shoot even par, even though it wasn’t his best ball-striking day.
“There was a lot of chipping and putting going on out there today,” said Sullivan. “I only hit three greens on the front and six greens on the back.”
Sullivan holed out for birdie with a pitching wedge on the 15th hole for the highlight of his round.
“That was helpful,” he said. “I also made a good par save with a 25-footer on the 10th hole. My chipping was very good. I didn’t leave myself too many long par putts when I missed the green, and I missed a few.”
Sullivan had two birdies and two bogeys in his round.
Breen, a former NENYPGA Match Play champion, birdied the third and 11th holes to offset bogeys on the 13th, 14th and 17th holes.
Hughes, also a two-time Match Play winner, collected birdies on the seventh, eighth, 10th and 12th holes to stay in the title chase.
Jaycox, a two-time Player of the Year and four-time Senior Player of the Year, also was one-over-par.
Peter Gerard of Mill Road Acres, a former Stroke Play titlist and a four-time Player of Year, shot a 74 despite an adventurous back nine. Tom Siddon of Massena CC also shot a 74, while Mellet, winner of both the NENYPGA Professional Championship and Senior Professional Championship in back-to-back weeks, shot a 75.
Former Stroke Play winner Anders Mattson of Saratoga National shot a 77.
The final round begins this morning at 8. Top prize will be $2,200. The top 12 players also earn spots in next month’s NENYPGA Match Play Championship at Mohawk Golf Club. Mucha, Berliner, Mellet and Breen are exempt from qualifying.
Scott Berliner (Cobleskill G&CC) 71, Tom Sullivan (Wyanantenuck CC) 72, Paul Jaycox (Cobleskill G&CC) 73, Ian Breen (Colonie G&CC) 73, Kevin Hughes (Saratoga Golf & Polo Club) 73, Tom Siddon (Massena CC) 74, Peter Gerard (Mill Road Acres) 74, Steve Vatter (Capital Hills at Albany) 75, Frank Mellet (Colonie G&CC) 75, Glenn Davis (Albany CC) 75, Josh Hillman (Taconic GC) 76, Anders Matson (Saratoga National) 77, Bob Mucha (Greenock CC) 77, Kevin Haller (PGA member) 77, Tom Oppedisano (McGregor Links CC) 78, Steve Plata (Saratoga National) 79, John Souza (Stadium GC) 79, Brian Lowe (Windham CC) 81, Marc Levesqeue (Columbia G&CC) 81, Kevin Pokorski (Ausable Club) 81, Bradley Gardner (The Edison Club) 84, Noel Gebauer (Town of Colonie) 94.