PITTSFIELD -- Milton Torres Jr. considers ball-striking to be the strength of his golf game, not his chipping and putting.
But at Thursday's Massachusetts Open qualifying tournament at the Country Club of Pittsfield, Torres' short game rescued him as he successfully qualified for the Open for the third year in a row. The Wahconah Country Club assistant professional shot a 3-over-par 74 despite sub-standard iron play to tie with two others for the last of the eight spots available.
"My short game was good," the 35-year-old said. "I chipped well and made some clutch putts, but my iron play definitely needs some work."
Torres was the lone Berkshire County player in the 41-player field to advance. The only other county player of the six entered to break 80 was Cranwell Resort, Spa and Golf Club Director of Golf Dave Strawn. He carded a 78.
On a day when windy conditions sent scores soaring -- Torres said it was a two-club wind on some holes -- only Hampden Country Club head professional Billy Downes broke par, firing a strong 3-under 68. That was more than 10 shots better than the field average on the 6,395-yard layout of 78.78.
John Stoltz, of Middletown, N.Y., Paul Park, of Wayne, N.J., and Lowell Miller, of Casselberry, Fla., tied for second with 1-over 72s and Glen Walden, of Chappaqua, N.Y., fired a 73. Torres, Chris DeJohn, of Rocky Hill, Conn., and amateur Sean Gaudette, of The Orchards, got the final spots with 74s.
After making a two-putt birdie on the par-5 14th hole, Torres was 1 over and looking good. Then, he bogeyed the par-4 15th and par-5 16th to put himself in jeopardy.
"I hit poor back-to-back irons on 16 and 17," said the 35-year-old. "I just didn't finish the swings."
After a par on 17, Torres' second shot finished on the front on the two-tiered 18th green, setting up a difficult two putt. After his first putt barely reached the second tier, he calmly drained a 15-footer he considered an absolute must-make. As it turned out, with no 75s, he would have qualified anyway, but he didn't know that at the time.
Torres was happy to give some of the credit for his good putting day to course superintendent Jim Conant.
"The greens were perfect," he said. "They were receptive to shots and were a good speed."
It was a return to the past for Downes, 46. He hasn't played much tournament golf in recent years but was a dominant force in Western Massachusetts and had PGA Tour aspirations in the 1990s.
"It wasn't easy out there with the wind and the elevation changes, but I played really solid all day long," Downes said.
A combination of back issues, helping to raise a family and his job have kept him off the course. However, Hampden CC is undergoing a major renovation, closing the course and giving Downes more time to hone his swing.
"For the first time in five years I have started practicing hard the past few weeks and it was fun to see the results," he said.
Gaudette, meanwhile, was the only amateur to advance to June's tournament at Woodland Country Club. Like Torres, the Yale senior-to-be had a shot he considered a must-make on No. 18 and delivered, chipping in for a birdie.
"I was thinking I needed it," said the 20-year-old, who reacted like that was the case when the ball dropped into the hole.
To contact Richard Lord:
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