Smooth-swinging Dan Russo still hits the ball a country mile off the tee, and he remains one of the premier scratch golfers in the Capital Region, despite competing against much younger players in nearly every event.
The 56-year-old Hagaman native refuses to give in to age, and odds are excellent that he will add to his already lengthy list of career milestones this spring and summer.
That’s one of the reasons why Russo, who has acted as the unofficial organizing captain for the Capital Region Amateur Golf Association’s team in the annual Gazette Cup matches against the area pros, will handle the dual role of honorary captain when this season’s all-star match play event is held May 7 at Mohawk Golf Club.
“Ever since I was old enough to remember, whenever I swung hard, I didn’t play very well,” Russo said about his controlled swing. “I knew I had to do something different, so I just started swinging easier, and it’s worked all these years. I don’t know why my swing hasn’t changed much, but I’m lucky enough to have an easy, soft and smooth swing. The less movement, the better it is, maybe.”
Russo’s game hasn’t changed much, except for a switch to the long putter many years ago and a switch back to a regular size one with a claw grip a couple of years ago.
“I don’t know what it is,” said Russo about his enduring game. “I’ve lost some skills. They’ve eroded over the years, but hopefully, I’ve also gotten smarter. I think the thing that has bugged me the most about my game as I get a little older are all the injuries I’ve had in the last few years. I’ve had different injuries almost every year.”
Numerous injuries over the last five or six years are about the only thing that has slowed Russo down.
Depending on what tournaments are viewed as “major” events for the elite amateurs, Russo is considered second only to former area standout Charlie Murphy on the all-time lists. The 66-year-old Murphy is currently living in Naples, Fla., but he ruled the region for many decades as a longtime member of Wolferts Roost Country Club. The former New York State Mid-Amateur champion won three Troy Invitationals, three Tri-County Match Play titles, five Tri-County Stroke Play crowns and six Eastern New York Golf Association crowns, when that organization used to be the premier local amateur organization from 1937 through 1983. That gives Murphy 17 area “majors.”
Russo, who was banned from the Tri-County Golf Association for many years because he lived outside of its self-proclaimed geographical borders, won two Troy Invitationals, four Tri-County Match Play titles, two Tri-County Stroke Play titles, one of the now defunct Capital Region Times Union Amateur trophy, and six Capital Stroke Play championships for a total of 14 area majors.
But Russo, who has competed in the U.S. Senior Open, the U.S. Senior Amateur and the U.S. Mid-Amateur, is also one of the most prolific best-ball partners in area history, winning numerous local tandem events multiple times, like the Mohawk Golf Club Member-Guest, Albany Invitational, Shaker Invitational, Wolferts Roost Invitational, McGregor Invitational, Stadium Classic, Taconic Four-Ball Classic and Little Brown Jug at Berkshire Hills.
He and longtime best-ball partner Dave Hayes have gone on the road to win such events as the prestigious J.R. Williams National Invitational at Oak Hill in Rochester and the Anderson at Winged Foot.
Russo has won numerous Capital Region Amateur Golf Association point championships as that association’s player of the year and has also won four Edison Invitationals, considered the best area one-day event.
He won six club championships at Amsterdam Municipal Golf Course and won more than 25 at Rolling Hills at Antlers, his longtime home course. He is currently looking into joining Hayes as a member at Schuyler Meadows.
“The lone word to describe him is class,” said local club pro Kevin Canale at a special event to honor Russo for his career accomplishments. “It doesn’t matter the caliber player you are, or the type of event he’s playing in. He is considerate and makes you feel special. He has all the good traits that this game is about.”
Russo made the Florida Atlantic golf team as a walk-on and eventually earned a scholarship there. He briefly considered turning professional but came back home to find a job.
“I would have loved to have tried the PGA Tour, but they are on a different level than I am,” he said. “It’s almost scary how much better they are than what people realize.”
Russo’s career accomplishments are impressive, but he puts only a few of them high on his priority list.
“Playing in the U.S. Senior Open was fun, but I wish I enjoyed it more,” he recalled. “I was so overwhelmed by it. I was trying not to screw up instead of just trying to play golf.
“Qualifying for the U.S. Amateur was also special,” he said. “I was trying trying to be competitive.
“But I think the neatest thing for me was being to play three generations of my family. I was able to play with my dad and with my son. A lot of people don’t get a chance to do that. My dad hasn’t played in a while because of some knee issues, but at least I had chance to play with him.”
Russo doesn’t care who he plays with as far as talent is concerned, but you better not be slow.
“My famous line is if you’re playing with me, you’re not that good. Pick up the pace,” said Russo. “Slow play drives me insane.”