Champion Kirby and venues Salem, Kernwood Sparkle at 92nd NEPGA

It was as glorious a week as the New England section of the PGA of America has experienced in goodness knows when.

This, the 92nd annual section championship, held August 20-22, was blessed with three days of heavenly summer weather and compelling competition among 190 competitors — second largest field in tournament history — on two outstanding Donald Ross-designed North (of Boston) Shore courses —  Salem and Kernwood.

And to cap it all off a thrilling final-round, head-to-head battle between week-long leader and eventual champion Ed Kirby and Jeff Seavey on Salem’s historic championship layout.

The determining factor the last round? Kirby’s four-inch tap-in for birdie on the 16th hole — after Seavey’s second eagle in five holes on No. 15 had brought him level with Kirby — and Kirby’s eight-foot, uphill par putt on the final hole.

Put it all together and you had a wire-to-wire victory for former PGA Tour player Kirby, representing Alpine Country Club in Cranston, R.I. His three-round aggregate of 66-69-70-205 earned Kirby, who turns 50 in November, the $14,000 top prize from a purse of $85,000. He was followed by two Mainers, Seavey (70-68-68-206), in his 16th year at Samoset Resort, and defending champion Hickson (68-71-69), who provides his golf expertise for Dick’s Sporting Goods, and three-time former winner Kirk Hanefeld (72-67-70), who runs The Golf Academy at Renaissance.

It was a superb week for the “old guard.” Hanefeld is 56, Hickson 48 and Seavey 46.

“As with many Donald Ross courses,” Kirby said after receiving the Tom Mahan Sr. Trophy from NEPGA president Jim Noris and NEPGA excutive director Mike Higgins, “it was all about shaping your ball into position on virtually every shot from tee to green. Length was no issue. It was more strategy, knowing when to go for the pin and when not to; where to place your tee ball. And that played into the hands, I think, of the more experienced players, and the scoreboard backed me up.”

And no one followed that route better than Kirby, who played in his first section title event in 2008. The three-time U.S. Open contestant who spent three years competing in Asia and two years in Africa, led the championship from the moment he turned in a four-under 66 on opening day playing Kernwood, located in Salem.

A 69 Tuesday at Salem, located next door in Peabody, gave him a three-shot advantage on Seavey moving into the final day, and he never trailed, though playing partner Seavey did catch him with his 16-foot eagle putt (after a 228-yard hybrid second) on the par-5 15th.

When Kirby responded with a 7-iron approach on the 420-yard 16th to within inches of the cup for birdie, the final margin of victory was established. But not before Seavey missed birdie putts on 17 and 18 (21-foot downhiller) and Kirby made a five-footer for par on 17 and chipped from off the green, pin high right, on 18 to within eight feet and sank that one.

“I knew I needed to play well the last round because I had so many solid players chasing me, including Jeff Martin, a former assistant of mine, ” Kirby noted. “I also remembered that I choked when I had a chance to win at Worcester (2009) but shot 79 the last day and Paul Parajeckas (at 59) won. I was determined not to let that kind of finish happen to me again.”

Yet, Kirby had even more important matters on his mind during the tournament. His 87-year-old father, Richard, had been admitted to the VA Hospital in Providence with severe anemia and required two blood transfusions Monday night shortly before Ed returned to his bedside.

“He’s had two triple bypasses and just a few months ago he had a pacemaker implanted,” Ed said, “so we all had our worries about him. But after visiting him Monday night and being told he was out of danger, I could get back to my golf the next two days feeling better about things.”

Two days later, son gave father the best medicine possible: the Tom Mahan Sr. Trophy. “I walked into the room with it and we both started crying,” Kirby revealed. “I told him I felt him there with me every step of the way the last round. He made all those putts for me.”

Richard Kirby will be inducted into the LaSalle Academy Athletic Hall of Fame in November.

Those putts Kirby referred to would include a shaky five-footer on No. 11, a short par-5, where Seavey sank a 55-footer from the front of the green for his first backside eagle, a five-footer on 12 for birdie, a five-footer for par on 13 from behind the green, an eight-footer after missing the green on 14 and the aforementioned clutchers on 17 and 18.

“I was so calm over that last putt on 18,” Kirby admitted. “This is what I came here for, I told myself.  I had no negative thoughts, only one positive one about dad. And the putt fell. Jeff had given his birdie putt a good go, but that was a treacherous downhiller, so I was fortunate to be putting for the win and not a tie and a playoff.”

Kirby, who stands a mere 5 feet, 5 and a half inches, made five of six up-and-down situations for the day, four of five the back nine. The one he failed on was unique, on No. 11. After overshooting the green with his second, Kirby opted to hit a semi-flop pitch back up to the pin, rather than a bump and run, and the ball landed on an upslope 17 feet short of the pin; not his best. But, amazingly to the Salem members looking on, the ball stayed on the upslope, when in most cases it would have rolled back down off the greem towards Kirby’s feet. “That was a big break for me,” Kirby admitted. “Jeff had just made eagle. If that ball rolls back to me I might be struggling to make six, never mind a five.”

It reminded some of Fred Couples’ good fortune on No. 12 the final day of his Masters victory in 1992, when he left his tee shot on the famous par three short of the green, and remarkably the ball stopped on the steep slope rather than roll back down into the pond frontingthe green, as was usually the case.

Kirby has dealt with adversity the last few years in the form of a bad back and phlebitis, but as he reasoned, “I didn’t believe my golf game would desert me; it was simply going to hide on me until I could find it again.”

Thus, Kirby, slugged “Popeye” by Raymond Floyd when they were paired together for the final round of the 1987 U.S. Open when Ed outdrove the major champion more times than not, recommiteed himself to his game the last 18  months and has reaped significant dividends. He was particularly encouraged coming to Salem and Kernwood after starting 69-65 at the Rhode Island Open a couple weeks ago and shooting 10 under par on one of the two days of the Telus World Skins game held in Nova Scotia the end of July.  The Halifax field included Paul Casey, Stephen Ames, Carl Pettersen, Jonathan Vegas and Lucas Glover.

“I knew I could play well, but I had to do it, not just talk about it to myself,” Kirby qupped. “And I was fortunate to do just that, but with help. It helped that I was paired with Frank Dully the first two days, Day 1 at Kernwood, his home course, then Salem. I played solid and smart that first day. I got help for the second round from an unexpected source. I was starting to walk the course late Monday before driving home to my dad and a member in a cart pulled up and asked me if I wanted a ride around. That saved me lots of time and gave me a great refresher, since I hadn’t played there since the 1991 Massachusetts Open. Thanks, Bill Niconchuk.”

Kirby had four birdies and a bogey Tuesday, five birdies and a bogey Monday, setting the stage for the dramatic Wednesday finish.

“I told my wife Susan all I needed to do was shoot under par, easier said than done, to win, and I did, but barely. Jeff pushed me right to the last putt,” Kirby said.

Seavey, who finished third in the NEPGA in 2009, gained solcae in finishing second by qualifying for the PGA National Professional Championship next June in Oregon for the fifth time in eight years. “That was my primary goal coming in,” he confessed. “But I also thought I might be able to contend for the top spot if I played my best. I almost did.”

The Fryeburg, Maine, native was in the hunt throughout, starting with 70 at Kernwood (he hadn’t seen the layout in several years), then scoring the best 36-hole aggregate at Salem (136, eight under). But it still wasn’t good enough to catch Kirby, whose last serious stretch on the PGA Tour occurred in 1994, when he made seven of the last eight tournament cuts.

“Ed made a bunch of clutch putts the last nine, no bigger ones than on the last two holes,” added Seavey, who works winters at The Plantation Inn in Crystal River, Fla. “Fact is neither one of us lost the tournament. I kept creeping up on him and he’d answer with a great shot or putt. I finally caught him on 15 and, like a champion, he got the edge right back with a fantastic approach on 16.”

Then it came down to the 54th hole. “I was stuck between clubs for my second shot (132 yards, uphill, slight breeze in the face),” Seavey explained. “Ed had hit first and landed just off the green to the right. He’d need tow good shots to save par. I decided to hit a three-quarter cut 9-iron; caught it a fraction too hard and had that tough putt from above the pin. At least I made Ed play exceptional the last few holes to beat me. He played great for three days actually.”

Seavey played the par-fives six under the final day.

Hickson, who provides instruction and club fitting at Dick’s Sporting Goods in its Topsham, Maine, location, put up a gallant defense of the 2011 title he won at Pine Hills in Plymouth, Mass.

“I was tickled pink the way I finished as strong as I did,” said Hickson, who played the final round with a nasty stomach bug. I couldn’t eat in the morning; got dehydrated too. But I had to plow forward. I wanted to finish top 13 for the National Pro.”

Which he did, of course. Hickson, Kirby, Seavey, Hanefeld and the other qualifiers, including North Shore entries Dully and Ipswich’s Travis Hall, will compete June 23-26 next year at the Sunriver Resort’s Crosswater and Meadow Club courses in Oregon. The top 20 there will play in next August’s PGA Championship.

Playing in the next to last group with Hall and Hanefeld, Hickson stayed within range of Kirby and Seavey the final day and nearly caught them. He had five birdies, four on the first 11 holes, but never got any better than -7 for the tournament, after his final birdie on the 15th. A bogey on the home hole, moments after Kirby made birdie on 16, crushed his hopes.

“I made a couple bad decisions the front nine and didn’t make enough birdies the back,” said Hickson, who was cheered on throughout the tournament by 11-year-old son Benjamin. “Poor drives on 16 and 18 cost me as well. Still, I had a good week on two awfully good courses.”

Hickson won $5150, Seavey $7800.

Hanefeld, after a five-year quest on the Champions Tour, returned to the club, Salem, where he served as golf director for more than a decade, and gave a fine account of himself. He finished seven back and settled for fourth money ($3850), lamenting his poor start at Kernwood on Day 1 and ineffective last-day putting.

“I put myself too far back of Ed the first day (66 to 72) when we were both playing Kernwood,” Hanefeld said. “I needed to shoot under par there before going over to Salem for the last two days. I had three three-putts that put me at 72. I got back into it a little with the 67 second day (leaving him 4 shots back with 18 holes left), but couldn’t put any heat on the final round.”

Hanefeld, with a sizable group of Salem members in his last-day gallery, could have gotten into the mix for the final nine, but he hit a poor second shot into the par-5 11th, lipped out his 12-footer for birdie, then missed a 10-footer for bird on the one-shot 12th. His only birdie the back nine came on No. 15. Too little too late.

“I hadn’t played Salem in a few years and it was as good or better than I remembered it,” Hanefeld offered. “It was nice to see so many friendly faces and receive their support. Walking off the ninth green Tuesday  and heading for the 10th tee was like going through a receiving line.

“Kernwood? It was the perfect pairing with Salem for this event. A great playing experience, a terrific setting with the Danvers River wrapping around several holes.”

Fifth place finisher Jeff Martin (70-68-72-210, $3400) was expected to put some pressure on the leader, but never got untracked the last round in the Kirby-Seavey group. He didn’t make birdie until the 10th and made only one other, on 18.

Four Aces

Aces were wild over the three days. Four players made holes-in-one: Salem assistant David Perroni on Kernwood’s 138-yard ninth. Two were made on Salem’s No. 12, a 150-yarder (Weston’s Adam Hemeon and Bob Darling of Fox Ridge), and one on Salem’s 14th (213 yards, by Kernwood’s Dully).

Dully, the 2006 winner at Turner Hill when he bludgeoned the field by 12 strokes with an 11-under 205 total), notched his sixth career ace with a 6-iron. He lost the tournament when he shot 4-over-par the first 11 holes at his home course on Day 1. He played six under from there and finished T-7, worth $2575, the same number as former winner Troy Pare of Wannamoisett.

Perroni’s “1,” with a 9-iron, shook up the North Salem neighborhood surrounding Kernwood because that’s where the first-year Salem assistant and former long-time head pro at Cape Neddick grew up.  Perroni, in fact, caddied at Kernwood as a kid. His parents still live off the 11th tee. “I snuck on the course a lot as a kid. The members were kind to me,” Perroni remembers.

Trophy Presentation

NEPGA President Jim Noris, head professional at Dedham Country and Polo Club, thanked the memberships and staffs of Salem and Kernwood for serving as ideal hosts. Course superintendents John Eggleston (Kernwood) and Kip Tyler (Salem) received the most plaudits from players and spectators.  NEPGA Executive Director Michael Higgins seconded Noris’ remarks. The Tom Mahan Sr. Trophy has a North Shjore connection. Mahan was head golf professional at nearby Beverly Golf and Tennis Club (United Shoe CC during his tenure) for many years, a good portion of which he served as NEPGA president. Tom’s son, Tom Jr., succeeded his dad and was in charge for more than a decade before taking the post as head pro at Oyster Harbors on Cape Cod…Kirby described the two courses as “absolutely spectacular” during his acceptance remarks. “Salem’s always been in my top five,” he said, “and Kernwood I’ve always loved playing.”


Some observers rightfully so gave Dully a chance to become the first host professional to win on his home course since Tom McGuirk at Vesper in 1977…This was the third time Salem played host, the first time since 1944, when Lester Kennedy of Pawtucket won…Kernwood also has hosted the event twice previously, most recently 1999 (with Winchester), when Mike San Filippo triumphed…The last Rhode Islander to win before Kirby was Pare, who won at Pleasant Valley in 2005…Hickson had also won earlier at Warwick and Quidnessett in Rhody in 1995…Kernwood gets right back into the major tournament hosting business in two years as venue for the 2014 Massachusetts Amateur during the club’s centennial year…Seasoned veterans are making it a habit of winning the NEPGA…Of the last four winners, two were in their 40s (Hickson and Kirby) and two in their 50s (Carnegie Abbey’s Scott Spence in 2010 at Portland and The Woodlands in Maine, Parajeckas at Worcester and Mount Pleasant in 2009).









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