Wednesday August 1, 2012

REXFORD, N.Y. -- It's not often that a sudden-death playoff for a coveted championship can be considered anti-climactic, but that was the case on Tuesday for Berkshire Hills head professional Josh Hillman.

"[Playoff opponent] Frank [Mellett] and I both had ear-to-ear grins on the tee and slapped hands" said Hillman, who eventually won the playoff with two pars to capture the Northeast New York PGA Professional Championship.

While both golfers obviously wanted the win, their biggest goal had already been reached -- earning the two berths up for grabs for next year's PGA National Championship in Sunriver, Ore. The top 20 finishers in the club pros' biggest event earn a spot in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y.

Hillman (71-71) and Mellett (74-68) both overcame plenty of pressure-packed moments earlier that made the playoff seem like child's play. Their 2-under 142 totals were just one shot better than Taconic head professional Rick Pohle (72-71), section points-leader Scott Berliner (73-70) and Nathan Kain (73-70).

"My whole goal was to qualify for nationals," said Hillman, who has played once in the national event. "The plaque and the extra $300 is nice, but qualifying was the most important thing."

Hillman knew he needed a par to avoid a five way playoff -- Mellett was already in at 2 under after rallying in round two -- for one spot in Oregon. He proceeded to fade his driver into an almost unplayable lie.

"I was two feet from the hazard and the ball was sitting down," Hillman said. "I hit a 4-iron and tried to get it tumbling."

He hit a brilliant recovery shot that landed about 30 yards short of the green and rolled to a stop about 18 feet past the hole. A potential disaster had been averted. Hillman calmly tickled his speedy putt to within a foot and tapped in for a par and a trip west.

The round couldn't have started any better for the 35-year-old Greenfield native.

"Josh got off to a great start and just played beautifully," said Stockbridge Golf Club's Steve Mazzariello (75--147), who made up an All-Berkshire County final pairing with Hillman and Greenock Country Club's Bob Mucha (74--145).

"I had 117 yards in on No. 1 and my shot blew apart the hole and hit the pin," said Hillman, who made his 10-foot birdie putt and followed with birdies on Nos. 2 and 4.

With his 3-under start, he built a lead he'd need. Hillman played the next eight holes in 1 over, but was still in good shape before encountering trouble when he faded his tee shot into thick woods on the par-4 15th. Hillman's ball was lost, so he was forced to hit his tee shot over. He escaped with a double-bogey 6 to drop to 1 under and into the mix with at least five others.

After a clutch up-and-down on the par-3 16th, Hillman faced a 15-foot uphill putt on the par-5 17th for a much-needed birdie. Fortunately, Mucha provided an assist.

"Bob had almost the same putt, so I tried to mimic his, only hit it a little harder," said Hillman, who did just that and watched the ball fall into the hole.

It was like old times for Hillman, who won the event in 2008 at a time when he was arguably the section's best player.

"I used to come out here thinking like Tiger Woods, but the last few years, I've had no idea how I was going to do," said Hillman, who has had a good excuse -- his devotion to his wife, Angie; their 21 2-year-old son, Jacob; and the demands of his job.

But this year -- sometimes with Jacob at his side for twice-a-week 100-yard hole "matches" -- he's re-dedicated himself.

"I've worked really hard," said Hillman. "A lot of credit goes to Sully [Wyantenuck Country Club head professional Tom Sullivan]. "He's worked a lot with me on my swing. He and Rick [Pohle] have been good friends to lean on."

To contact Richard Lord:
rlord@berkshireeagle.com,
(413) 496-6236.