Hillman heads to Mass. Open on high

Sunday June 3, 2012

Josh Hillman's birdie-filled buildup to the Massachusetts Open has the Berkshire Hills Country Club head professional in an understandably positive frame of mind for the opening round at Walpole Country Club on Tuesday.

"Everything is there to play well," said Hillman Friday a day after he fired a 4-under 68 at his home course to finish second in the Hoosac Bank Pro-Am. "Things are really coming around."

That's an understatement. The birdies have been tweeting repeatedly for Hillman in recent weeks.

Thursday's round included seven birds and followed a 3-under 67 at Ekwanok Country Club in Manchester, Vt., and a 2-under 69 in the Clem Rafferty Pro-Am at Wyantenuck Country Club.

Wyantenuck head professional Tom Sullivan, who has been working with Hillman, isn't surprised.

"I think he has his confidence back, and that's huge," Sullivan said. "We just tweaked a few things, which is easy to do with a good player like Josh."

"We've been working on my mechanics," Hillman said. "Tom keeps it simple and I understand what we've been working on. It's a process and once you get it, you have to practice it."

With wife Angie and 21 2-year-old son Jacob at home, along with a demanding job, that's easier said than done. Fortunately, Hillman has great mentors in Sullivan and Taconic Golf Club head professional and Williams College golf coach Rick Pohle. Both have mastered remaining strong players while expertly running big golf operations.

"I work with Sully on the swing while Rick and I talk a lot about life issues and that's helped a lot," Hillman said. "I'm 34 and they have [almost] 30 years on me, and I'm just trying to be competitive with them. Jim [Salinetti] and I want to be able to do what they've done in keeping their games strong while making their clubs function well."

Salinetti, Hillman's close friend, is a three-time Massachusetts Amateur champion who is in his second year as the head professional at Winchester Country Club.

Hillman, who has missed the Mass. Open cut the past two years, has had a little more time to practice this year thanks to the tournament being played two weeks earlier than usual.

"Our Pewter Cup is the third week of June, so I've usually been working 14- and 15-hour days the weekend before the Open," said Hillman. "It's a new experience not having to rush around."

That combined with his recent play, have Hillman positioned for a good week in an event he cherishes.

"I tell my members to set goals every year and I do the same thing," Hillman said. "The two events I focus on are the state open and qualifying for the national club pro tournament."

Hillman has had several memorable Mass. Open runs. He held a one-shot lead in the 2000 event at the Country Club of Pittsfield before a bogey-bogey finish cost him a victory but earned him low-amateur honors. The former University of Rhode Island golfer went on to win the Mass. Publinks Championship that summer before turning pro.

Hillman has "five or six" top-10 finishes in the Open, including a memorable last-day charge from 41st place to seventh in the 2006 Open at Charles River Country Club, so don't discount his chances of contending.

"Josh has the game to compete," Sullivan said. "Finding time to practice is difficult, but that kid's a competitor and he's still right in the game with those [top] guys if he gets in his rhythm."

Hillman also has a vital weapon to go along with his current ball-striking form.

"He's rolling the ball really well with his putter and that's a huge benefit," Sullivan said.

That's especially true at Walpole, says Sullivan, who played the course recently with Stockbridge Golf Club head professional Steve Mazzariello, one of five other county players in this week's field.

"If you get on the wrong portion of the greens, you can be in trouble," Sullivan said of the multi-tiered, wickedly quick putting surfaces. "It's not wise to be above the hole. If the pin is in the back, hit to the middle, and if it's in the middle, hit to the front edge."

Hillman was scheduled to play a practice round, weather permitting, on what turned into a rainy Saturday. The course features multiple doglegs, tree-lined fairways and quite a bit of elevation change.

"He'll need to really figure out his yardage's good," Sullivan said. "There are some holes where it looks like there's a ton of room where there isn't. ... Josh has the distance to reach a few of the par 5s in two and that's a big benefit The par 3s are very good. You play them even par and you'll be in good shape."

Hillman, who has lined up a local caddie to help him figure all that out, is ready to tee it up in the $75,000 event.

"I want to compete against guys like [six-time Mass. Open champion and Nationwide Tour veteran] Geoff Sisk and believe I can," Hillman said. I'm a competitor and now it's just a matter of doing it. I feel like it's close."


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