Welch wins with final-round 67
Quincy pro overcomes deficit of five strokes
WALPOLE - Without any control over the situation - he had done all he could up to that point - Michael Welch chose not to watch as Michael Ballo lined up a 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that would have forced a playoff at the 103d Massachusetts Open.
Hiding at first behind a tree near the 18th green at Walpole Country Club, Welch then took refuge on the practice green, waiting for the crowd’s reaction to tell him if Ballo made his putt and the pair would have more holes to play.
When Ballo’s birdie bid just slid by, the groan from the gallery made it official: Welch, a 30-year-old from Quincy, had finally won a Massachusetts Golf Association event. It came in dramatic fashion, Welch shooting a final-round 67 to overcome a five-stroke deficit. His 5-under-par total of 208 beat Ballo (73) and Jason Parajeckas (68) by one.
“I don’t know what to say, I’m a little choked up,’’ said Welch, who earned $15,000. “It means a lot. I’ve been playing in a lot of MGA tournaments, and finally got it done. It feels pretty good.’’
Despite the lack of an MGA title, Welch had a decorated record. He won back-to-back New England Amateur titles, has wins in the Cape Cod Open, New Hampshire Open, Vermont Open, and has three victories on the NGA Hooters Tour.
Winning his home state open ranks right up there, though.
“It has to be toward the top,’’ Welch said. “It’s home, I’m around friends and family. They see me travel the world and play online, but it’s good to come into my backyard and get a good result.’’
Welch made his move, like he had all week, on the back nine at Walpole, which he played in a combined 6 under. After a three-putt bogey on No. 7 left him 1 under on the day and 2 under for the tournament - still one shot behind Ballo, who was trying to go wire-to-wire - Welch responded with birdies at the 11th, 12th, and 15th to take the lead. In three rounds, he made just one bogey on the back nine.
He didn’t know exactly where he stood until he reached the 18th tee, and after a safe 5-iron to the fairway, followed by a 6-iron to 15 feet, the thought of victory finally entered his mind.
“I got a little choked up walking on 18,’’ Welch said. “It’s hard to know because they’re behind me, but I knew they were going to have to play good coming in to get me, so I thought I had a good chance.’’
Both Parajeckas - who was paired with Welch - and Ballo missed birdie putts on No. 18 that would have forced a playoff. Parajeckas left his 30-footer from below the hole 3 feet short, while Ballo’s attempt just veered left.
“To shoot 3 under on the final day, that’s a huge accomplishment,’’ said Parajeckas, an assistant pro at Pleasant Valley who birdied Nos. 11, 12, and 14 to tie Welch for the lead, then missed short birdie putts on the 15th (when Welch took the lead) and 16th. “I’d like to make birdie on 18 to tie Mike, but that’s not the way it went. Hat’s off to him, he’s been one of my good friends, we’ve played a lot of noncompetitive rounds together. It was either going to be me or him today, that’s the way we looked at it.’’
That could only happen if the leaders came back a bit, and both Ballo (6 under at the start of the round) and Mark Stevens (5 under) obliged. Ballo three-putted four consecutive holes, starting at the sixth, and made bogey on all four, falling out of the lead when Welch started making his back-nine birdies. Stevens made three bogeys on the front nine, shot 74, and tied for fourth at 2 under with Eric Higgins (70).
It marked the second straight year Ballo held the lead in the final round, only to finish second.
“It’s depressing, let’s be honest. It doesn’t feel good,’’ said Ballo, a 23-year-old from Stamford, Conn. “You’ve got to stay positive. This is my third second in the last season and a half, so you’ve got to say I’m knocking on the door.’’
Welch had been, too, at the Mass. Open, finishing tied for ninth the last two years.
“I just wanted to hit good golf shots, maybe hole a couple putts, and coming down the stretch hopefully have a chance,’’ Welch said. “It was up to them behind us, if they played good I was probably a little too far back. But I wasn’t out of it, I figured if I played solid on the back I’d have a chance, and I played very good on the back.’’
Asked about the trophy that features Donald Ross, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, and Francis Ouimet among its impressive list of winners, Welch savored the moment, and contemplated joining such an elite group.
“It’s going to mean a lot to have my name etched on top of that,’’ he said.