DALTON -- When three-time defending champion Scott Berliner bolted to a five-shot lead in the Northeast New York PGA Stroke Play Championship, it was easy to assume that Tuesday's final round at Wahconah Country Club would be more of a coronation than a competition.
Instead, with his mind admittedly cluttered with thoughts of what a win would mean, Berliner made six bogeys in his first 12 holes. His lead was down to a single stroke over playing companion Peter Gerard as they stood on the tee at No. 13, one of the most difficult par-3 holes in Berkshire County.
"It seemed like I was in between clubs all day," Berliner said. "But I got a comfortable number for my 3-hybrid. That gave me a free swing and I finally made a pretty good move. That was fortunate, because I was definitely leaking oil."
The shot never left the flag on the 230-yard hole and finished less than a foot behind the hole -- it's surprising it didn't end up in the cup -- for a tap-in birdie. When Gerard failed to get up and down from just short of the green, the lead was suddenly back to three shots, and Berliner was on his way to victory.
The 39-year-old finished with a 4-over-par 75 for an even-par 142 total to win by four shots over Gerard (73-73) and Taconic Golf Club's Josh Hillman, who shot an adventurous even-par 71.
Berliner admitted he started to realize what a win would mean on his way back to the hotel after his opening 67, and that those thoughts were in his head during Tuesday's round.
"I was thinking about too much stuff out there," said Berliner, an assistant professional at McGregor Links Country Club in Wilton, N.Y. "I had it in my mind about winning for the fourth straight time and knew that this would be my 10th section major."
Still, he got off to a good start with a birdie on the par-4 first hole and was 1 under through three before the oil leakage started with a 3-putt bogey on the par-4 fourth. That started an uncharacteristic stretch of six bogeys and a single birdie in nine holes.
At the same time, Gerard, the head professional at Mill Acres Road Golf Course in Latham, N.Y., holed a spectacular pitch shot for a birdie on No. 8 while playing the first 12 holes in 1 under to get within one before the pivotal 13th hole.
While many may have believed Tuesday was going to be a walk in the park, Berliner wasn't one of them.
"I knew it was going to be tough," he said. "Five shots seems like a lot, but on this course, you're on the edge on every shot. It's easy to make double bogeys while someone else makes a birdie."
With his irons not as precise as usual -- he said his mistakes usually go right, but on Tuesday he was missing left -- and with some dicey pin placements on Wahconah's speedy and undulating greens, Berliner said no lead was safe.
"I had both hands on the steering wheel all day," Berliner said. "Some of the pins were on crowns and there were some front pins where you couldn't get aggressive. I hit a lot of good putts, but didn't make anything. I lipped out three putts in the last four holes."
Gerard and Hillman may have tied for second, but their final rounds couldn't have been any more different. Gerard, who won the section's Senior Stroke Play Championship earlier this month, had a single birdie and three bogeys while Hillman's roller-coaster ride included seven pars, six birdies, four bogeys and a double bogey.
"Overall, I played pretty good, but I had some bad putting holes," Hillman said. "I haven't been able to practice very much, so considering that, I'm pretty happy with how I played."
Hillman's attention will now turn to his Williams College team as it prepares for the fall season.
"It's been fun competing, but I'm excited that my team will be returning this week," he said. "Six of the 15 won their club championships."
While Berliner, who also won the NENY Professional Championship and Class A Championship this summer, took home the $2,000 winner's check, four Berkshire County pros finished in the top six. Country Club of Pittsfield assistant Milton Torres (74-74) was fourth, Greenock Country Club head pro Bob Mucha (72-78) was fifth and Stockbridge Golf Club's Steve Mazzariello tied for sixth (76-75).
To contact Richard Lord:
or (413) 496-6236.