(John VanDerLaan takes the lead for good with a birdie on New Haven's 15th hole)
August 1, 2018: Watson v. Nicklaus at Turnberry. Stenson v. Mickelson at Troon. VanDerLaan v. Swift at New Haven Country Club.
Around here they’ll be talking about VanDerLaan versus Swift at the 84th Connecticut Open for a long time to come. At least until one of them wins his first tour event.
To summarize: Twenty-two-year old John VanDerLaan, after tying the Connecticut Open’s single-round record with 62 on Tuesday, shot his second 66 of the week, reached 16 under par and broke the Open record of 200 by six.
Still, walking up the 54th and final hole, he led by only one over CJ Swift, who himself shot 67 and amassed a three-day total of 196, which would have broken the record by, ahem, four.
Swift played a Nicklaus-like round, making no bogeys until that final hole when he charged a long birdie attempt, and in which he came from three shots down—with birdies on eight, nine, and ten. He also birdied the difficult 13th after VanDerLaan had made a 35-foot two on the par-3 12th.
Long before then it had become match play. A tournament of two. Call it the Duel in the Rain. Their fellow competitor, 2016 Open Champion Adam Rainaud, shot even par, two over the previous tournament record, and finished third by six. Just behind him was Low Amateur Max Theodorakis of Danbury at -6, continuing his very hot play this summer, and Mike Ballo, who came close again, shooting even par Wednesday, not getting the putts to fall.
“I kept telling myself to play the course, but I was kind of playing him at the same time,” said Swift, “but it felt like match play from the start.”
“It’s really exciting when it’s like that,” said ” VanDerLaan, of Southbury, the Division II Player of the Year this year at Florida Southern. “You can’t let up for a single shot. Make one bad swing and all of a sudden you’re trailing.”
Swift wasn’t trailing after 15 because he made a bad swing. The difference was that his 20-foot birdie putt came up short. VanDerLaan’s 5-footer dropped.
“I’ve been hitting driver every day there,” said VanDerLaan, “but it was downwind pretty good today and I knew it was a front pin and I wanted to hit something I could spin so I hit three wood.” He laughed. “And I missed the fairway anyway.” But a sand wedge from 95 yards landed just where he wanted it to, took a couple of hops and stopped four feet under the hole.
“It was huge to be able take a one-shot lead with three to play. I figured if I played solid coming in there are birdie holes out there, but you’ve got to hit good shots so I was just trying to keep the pressure on him.”
In the end, the difference might not have been the finish, but the rainy, overcast start that saw VanDerLaan go low quickly and Swift start cold.
“He got off to a little bit of a slower start,” said the champion. “I got off to pretty hot start with a couple birdies early [three and five]. Then he found his game there right in the middle of the round and it was very interesting. Great player. Great tournament for CJ, too.”
“Hey, I didn’t make a bogey until the 18th hole,” said Swift. “I knew I’ve been putting well and just waited and finally they started dropping.”
Before they did, VanDerLaan, who said he did not strike the ball as well as he had on the previous two days, converted two birdies, including an unlikely one on the par-4 third. He drove it into deep fescue left of the fairway. He had a decent lie, got it on the green about 40 feet, and drained it. Swift, who was close, missed.
“Hey, that’s birdie alley. Haven’t you played here before?” He laughed to Rainaud, coming off the green.
“I made a couple of putts you don’t expect to make. Those two and that birdie on 12, about 35 feet breaking 5 feet you just don’t expect. But when it’s going to happen it’s going to happen.”
For it to happen at the club where twenty years ago his Dad John won member-guest shop credit, and bought his two-year-old a set of kids clubs, and got him started in the game was, well, “ridiculous,” said VanDerLaan. “To get my first pro win here, on a course I really like, in front of the guys I grew up playing with, is really hard to put into words. It’s amazing.”
But not surprising, says younger brother Michael, who finished T-28 and also plays at Florida Southern. “He’s the most level-headed person and probably the best putter I know,” said Mike. “He knows how to get it done even if everything’s not working perfectly. I want to follow in his footsteps.”
Those footsteps will head to Q school in October, where John will once again find a fellow competitor named CJ Swift.