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Wellesley’s Balter on course for US Amateur

Matt Bianchini, who plays out a Boylston golf club, is one of two local players earning their first US Amateur berths. Matt Bianchini, who plays out a Boylston golf club, is one of two local players earning their first US Amateur berths. (David Colt)
By Marvin Pave
Globe Correspondent / August 9, 2012
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Balter, Bianchini in US Amateur tourney

The short game was crucial for both Ben Balter and Matt Bianchini when they qualified for their first US Amateur golf championship.

Balter, 18, whose family lives in Wellesley though he attends private school in Naples, Fla., captured the third and final qualifying spot last month at Charter Oak Country Club in Hudson by a stroke, thanks to a 20-foot birdie putt on the next-to-last hole.

His 3-under-par score of 139 featured just 52 putts for the 36 holes in his first US Golf Association event.

Bianchini, 35, who plays out of Mount Pleasant Country Club in Boylston and also has a connection to Naples, sank 11 birdie putts while capturing medalist honors with a 5-under-par 135 at the regional qualifier held at the Orchards Golf Club in South Hadley.

The US Amateur will be played next week at Cherry Hills Country Club in Colorado.

“I had to wait two and a half hours until all the scores were posted and it was pretty stressful. I still can't believe it’s happened,” said Balter, who will enroll at Wake Forest University in the fall of 2013.

He has been under the tutelage of Dr. Jim Suttie in Naples, where he has resided with his aunt for two years. Suttie’s roster of pupils include Loren Roberts, considered one of the finest putters on the Champions Tour. His expertise has benefited Balter.

“I just put a jumbo grip on my putter and it’s helped me keep a nice, smooth tempo, something I've also worked hard to accomplish with my coach,” said Balter, who fell in love with the sport as a 3-year-old.

He’s had some extraordinary rounds this year.

It started with a course record 63 at the Scott Robertson Memorial, a prestigious junior tournament at Roanoke Country Club in Virginia. It continued with a final-round 68 at the Toyota Junior Golf World Cup in Japan in June as a member of the US team, and with a second-round 65 at Turner Hill Golf Club in Ipswich last month during the three-day Ouimet Memorial.

“The Ouimet was my first New England amateur event and even though I kind of shot my way out of it with a 78 the first day, it was a great experience competing with some of the best amateurs in the area,” said Balter, who also plays out of Weston Golf Club.

“I realize I won't shoot 65 every day, so my goal has been to keep an even keel, focus on the next shot and not worry about the bigger picture,” he said, “and that mind-set helped me at Charter Oak.”

Balter said his dream is to win the US Amateur.

“If you tell yourself you can’t do it,” he said, “then you won’t.”

A former pro who stopped playing for three years because his short game betrayed him, Bianchini saw his touch around the greens improve in a most unusual way.

“I had the yips putting and chipping and I even chipped cross-handed for awhile,” said Bianchini, who played golf for West Boylston High and the University of Tennessee Martin. “The story of how it changed is really unbelievable. I was horrible. I was chipping like a 25-handicapper.”

That is, until 13 months ago, when Bianchini was practicing at Mount Pleasant and his cellphone rang.

“So I put the phone in my left hand and chipped with my right, and every chip was on target. I said ‘Wow,’ and within a month, I knocked five strokes off my handicap doing it one-handed.”

Bianchini, his wife, Kara, and daughters Katie and Madison are just settling into their new home in Naples, where he plays out of the Hideout Golf Club. He plans to play competitively in Florida, but return to Massachusetts each summer.

The US Amateur “is just my third USGA event, and quite frankly I wouldn't have expected it a year ago, especially at my age,” said Bianchini, who was runner-up by a stroke in January at the Crane Cup in Palm City, Fla., against a strong amateur field.

“When I went to the practice area there, I saw a half-dozen players chipping one-handed. The word must have gotten out. The great teacher Butch Harmon saw me do it, and told me his brother was also comfortable with the one-handed chip,” said Bianchini.

“The best thing is that I'm not dreading the chip shot, and that has made me more relaxed about the rest of my game. My chances of winning the US Amateur are a million to one, but making it to match play would be a great accomplishment.”

Historic hole-in-one

en route to Bentley

Bentley University golf coach Mickey Herron, who is also New England PGA Tour manager for Cape Cod and Rhode Island, dropped by the R.I. Junior PGA Championship last week to watch one of his incoming freshmen, Charles Anthony, play in the two-day event’s opening round.

“The next day,” said Herron, “I was helping score at the NEPGA Seniors in Vermont when I got a text message that said, ‘Your boy made a hole-in-one on the last hole.’ ”

Anthony's drive on the 304-yard, par-4 18th at Montaup Country Club in Portsmouth not only went in the cup, it made him the winner by one stroke.

“I think he made golf history with that shot,” said Herron, who sent e-mails to his Bentley players with the news and also chided Anthony, who played for La Salle Academy, through a voice mail.

“I told him not to get a big head,” said Herron. “What a great accomplishment.”

Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.

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