Frank Vana Jr. had already emerged as a dominant force in state golf when he teed off in the 2004 Massachusetts Amateur Championship at Taconic Golf Club in 2004, but the state's biggest amateur title had eluded him.
He finally grabbed that prize on that visit to the Berkshires, earning his first of consecutive Mass. Am titles with a win over Mike Cole in the 36-hole championship match.
On Monday, he'll return to Taconic as it hosts the tournament for the first time in 12 years as a recent inductee to the Massachusetts Golf Hall of Fame.
"It was a surprise and humbling," the 53-year-old said of joining the likes of Francis Ouimet, Pat Bradley and Donald Ross in the golf hall. "It really wasn't something I was ever thinking about."
Vana, who will be inducted in October, had already captured six Mass. Golf Association titles prior to his 2004 win at Taconic. He returns having won a record 13 MGA titles.
"I had been chasing that title for a long time," recalled Vana during a phone interview on Thursday. "It was exciting. The atmosphere was great and we had a great week."
It wasn't an easy title run. He chipped in on the par-3 17th hole to defeat Jim Renner, who has gone on to win more than $1.2 million on the PGA Tour and currently is playing on the Web.com Tour, in the quarterfinals. He then edged Billy Drohen in a sudden-death playoff in the semifinals before beating Cole in the final.
Vana returned to Taconic for the first time since that eventful tournament a couple of weeks ago to get in a practice round as he attempts to make another title run. A 2009 renovation by noted golf course architect Gil Hanse means the course isn't exactly like it was when he won. Thousands of trees have been removed and fairways and bunkers have added and/or restored in a highly praised update of the course.
"It was fun to be there," he said of his practice round. "I noticed the (missing) trees and they have added some length to the course. It's a great course and it is in great shape. Being in the corner of the state, I don't think it gets the attention that it deserves."
The long absence from the Williams College jewel had dulled his memory on one facet of the course — the tricky greens.
"Somehow, I forgot how sloped the greens are," he said. "They are very difficult."
Vana's most recent MGA victory came in the Mass. Mid-Amateur in 2013. The nine-time MGA Player of the Year has won that tournament nine times, including six in a row from 2000-2006. His last deep run at the Mass. Am. came in 2011 -— perhaps not surprisingly -— in the Berkshires when he was beaten 4 and 3 in the championship match by Ryan Riley at Wyantenuck Country Club.
"That was a fun week, but it's more fun when you win," Vana said. "Western Mass. has been great to me."
Vana, a member at Marlborough Country Club, was paired with Taconic head professional Josh Hillman in this year's Massachusetts Open at Worcester Country Club. Though both missed the cut, Hillman said Vana still has game.
"We talked a little about that first Amateur victory, his approaching the senior level and how his priorities have changed, but he still has the game to be a contender," Hillman said.
His 10-year-old son, Jake, and 8-year-old daughter, Molly, are both active in sports — Jake in hockey and lacrosse and Molly in soccer, swimming and lacrosse — so there is more than golf to focus on. He coaches Jake in hockey and attends the games of both of his kids. And, yes, they do play a little golf.
"I want to expose them to team sports, but they both like golf, too," Vana said.
As for his own golf game, the competitive spirit remains strong, but getting older does have some consequences.
"I feel good and I have been playing better and better lately," Vana said. "Physically, I feel young but mentally as I get older it seems harder to stay focused on every shot."
If there is any tournament that forces you to stay focused for a long time it is the Mass. Am. To win the title, you have to beat out 132 others just to reach match play and then you have to win five matches in a row — the last over 36 holes — to raise the trophy.
"Potentially you are playing 36 holes three days in a row," Vana said. "It's a grind. You have to stay in the moment. Of course, the better you play the easier it is."
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