Mike Wheeler lost part of a foot in a lawnmower accident, which put him out of action for most of last golf season. But he hasn’t lost his talent, or his nerve.
Wheeler, who lives in Colonie, made some clutch putts down the stretch, including a key two-putt par on the first playoff hole, to edge Lance Hope Sunday and win his first area major title in the annual Schenectady Classic, sponsored by The Daily Gazette.
Both Wheeler and Hope finished the three-day event, formerly called the Gazette County Amateur, at 1-under-par 215 in regulation. Six-time champion Paul Pratico finished third with a 72-218, followed by second-round co-leader Chad Stoffer (75-219) and seven-time champion Jim Mueller (72-219).
Wheeler never led until the final hole, when the long-hitting Hope topped his tee shot, advancing it only a little more than 100 yards. It took Hope three shots to reach the green. After Wheeler rolled his birdie putt up to tap-in range, Hope missed his par putt, setting up a playoff.
On the extra hole, Wheeler blew his tee shot well right, into the 18th fairway, but he had a good angle to the green. Hope blasted a mammoth tee shot, leaving him a flip wedge to the putting surface. But Wheeler’s approach shot landed on the green, about 20 feet below the cup. Hope’s shot went long, just over the fringe on the back of the green. Wheeler again rolled his birdie putt to within tap-in range, and after Hope’s chip shot was short, he missed the 15-foot downhill par putt, costing him the win.
Both Wheeler and Hope appeared calm and collected most of the final round, at least on the outside.
“It didn’t felt that way to me,” said the 39-year-old Wheeler, who was tied with Hope and Stoffer at even-par 144 heading into the final round. “I played well the first two days, but my swing didn’t feel right today. I just kept it in play, as best as I could, and I made some decent putts today.”
One of the keys to Wheeler’s round was a 20-foot birdie putt on the long par-3 15th hole after Hope already chipped in for birdie on the same hole.
“That might have been the key shot of the day for me,” Wheeler said. “Otherwise, I would have dropped at least two shots behind Lance with only three holes to go.”
Wheeler said his play on the back nine was strong all three days of the tournament. “I shot 34, 35 and 35,” he noted. “I made 12 or 13 birdies in the tournament, so I knew that there were some birdies out there, especially on the back side for me.”
Wheeler said he was playing some of the best golf of his life before the freak injury last year, but he’s just now starting to regain his form.
For Hope, a 41-year-old Schenectady native who taught himself the game, it was a disappointing finish to a brilliant day. He birdied two of the first three holes and set the pace throughout the final round, until his poor tee shot on the 18th hole.
It was the second time in the last three years, and third time overall, that he finished as the runner-up.
“I played well all day, and I felt comfortable out there,” Hope said. “I was hitting the ball well, and I was making my putts. I don’t really know what happened on the 18th hole. It’s a little disappointing, but I know I can play with these guys in this tournament. I’ve been doing it for quite a while now.”
Defending champion Aaron Simone tied for sixth (75-220), along with three-time winner Robby Bigley Jr. (69-220).
x-Mike Wheeler 71-215, Lance Hope 71-215, Paul Pratico 72-218, Chad Stoffer 75-219, Jim Mueller 72-219, Robby Bigley Jr. 69-220, Aaron Simone 75-220, Brandon Haase 73-221, Todd Czepiel 73-222, Ben Bates 78-224, Jim Welch 73-224, Ed Chylinski 68-225, Seth Adams 76-226, Tom Salmon 73-226, Pete Lindner 76-227, Kyle Adams 77-227, Bryan Barach 74-228, Connor Adams 76-231, Mike Arminio 79-232, Mike Dwyer 78-232, Kevin Broderick 77-232 Paul Hart 78-233, Greg Bennett 74-233, Jerry Brescia 80-234, Mark Chylinski 77-234, Dave Champagne 77-235, Brian Burke 80-239, Vince Petraccione 80-239, Don Bibby 81-240, Mike Stopera 86-242
x-Won playoff on first extra hole.