Goshen (July 22). Rasmey Kong lived up to his own bold prediction Sunday and made the 85th Connecticut Open Championship his first professional victory.
Surrounded by the junior buddies he grew up with and still competes against, he said: “I told these guys I was going to win this. And I did
Actually, Kong told the world. And while it’s not always advisable to say “if I play my game, kinda, the others don’t have a chance,” as he did on Saturday, the 22-year-old from West Haven walked his talk, shot one-under 71, and finished at -14 at Torrington Country Club, a shot better than Greenwich’s Paul Pastore, who pushed him hard.
“I didn’t really have my game today,” said Kong. “I got some bad breaks and it kinda got to me. But I stuck with it and wanted to make sure I shot under par, because then someone would have to shoot 66 or better to beat me.”
“It felt good to come in and finish strong. Paul gave me a good run at it and made me work those last few holes.”
Not only did his one-under 71 suffice, but Pastore shot 67, tying the low round of the day, and was one shot short.
The 23-year-old Pastore, who twice qualified for the U.S, Amateur and will try Tour Q School this fall for the first time, briefly overtook Kong on the back nine, but fell victim to a difficult, windy par-3 17th, where he mis-clubbed and then was unable to get up and down, and the contentious par-4 18th where that same wind prevented him from getting close to the right-hand hole location. “I thought the wind was similar to yesterday and hit 7-iron over the green, which I hit today,” said Pastore. “It was probably two clubs too little.”
Pastore had birdied the par-5 16th to tie Kong and as Pastore played 17, Kong merely parred 16, missing a 25-footer that would have taken him to -15. But as he played 17, his father and caddie Soweth told him that Pastore had bogeyed. Kong hit a 5-iron just short of the green, chipped to about 5 feet, and made the critical putt for par. Pastore knew he now needed a birdie on 18—and that 66—to force a playoff.
“I had 160 [on 18] and I wanted to go right at the flag and get it in that right corner there, but the wind just kind of took it.” His 7-iron left him well left of the hole and he two-putted for par.
Kong laid back in the fairway, punched a mid-iron to about 25 feet left of the flag and hit his putt to inches, securing four and in his greatest win to date. “I had the speed right all weekend,” he said.
As an Amateur, Kong finished second in stroke play in the 2018 Connecticut Amateur and was runner-up by a shot to Brian Ahern at last year’s Palmer Cup. Also as an amateur he had won twice on the Minor League Golf Tour in one-day events. But this was his first professional win.
Already in at that point and leader in the clubhouse was 16-year-old Ben James of Milford who also proved himself a prognosticator. Yesterday James, who had just won the Connecticut Junior Amateur, said he would need 63 Sunday to win. He shot 67, finished third, was Low Amateur, and indeed missed winning by four. His round included two birdies and an eagle, the last on 16 against the wind, where he hit his second to two feet. Playing partner Blake Morris of the Country Club of Waterbury also eagled there, tying fourth with Fletcher Babcock, and Jason Thresher, neither of whom could make their four birdies apiece pay. (Thresher made as many bogeys). Babcock doubled the 17th; Thresher made four bogeys, three on the short par-4 8th, 10th and 13th. Babcock had 71, Thresher 72. Morris, who made a move early with birdies on the 2nd, 3rd and 7th, but then stalled, finished with minus-3 69.
It’s been a coming-of-age summer for James. He won the AJGA Killington Junior Championship in Vermont, then the Junior, and now Low Amateur honors in the Open. He’ll represent Connecticut in the New England Junior Invitational Team Championship in two weeks, an event he and Team Connecticut won in 2018.
At Torrington, Sunday scores were much higher than Saturday. On Saturday there were 18 scores in the 60s, two of them 65s. On Sunday there were only 10, the low 67.
Former professional Cody Paladino, who won this championship in 2015, shot 71 to finish 7th. Max Theodorakis, Low Amateur a year ago, and a threat to challenge Kong today shot 72 to finish T8 with Ben Day of Waterbury, 71, and Michael VanDerLaan, 72. Only one in the T8 group, Joshua Salah of Great River Golf Club, 68, went low.
Early on, Kong must have had his doubts about his prognostication, and many in the field would have agreed with him, given that he had not been in the final group of an event as significant as this one in either his amateur or short pro career. One pro predicted that Kong would slip a shot or two, Thresher (lower photo) or another “veteran” would pick up three or four, and the wire-to-wire win would fall short.
“On the second hole [a par 5] I laid up and got into this huge divot. And on [the par-3] third I didn’t hit a good shot but it was embedded. It was the worst fried egg you could see. On 9, I hit a tree and it ricocheted to the right. I caught so many bad breaks today but it's golf and as long as you know who you are inside, and you keep grinding it's okay. It’s golf.”
The tide began to turn at nine when after the bad break off the tee, he hit left of the green hole-high on the short side. “That ball was not sitting down at all it was sitting up. It was unbelievable. It was a tougher shot.”
At that point Pastore was within one. He then birdied 10 to tie, parred 11, as did Kong, and briefly took the lead with a birdie from the bunker on the par-5 12th. Kong seemed to be hanging by a thread. He hit a 30-yard bunker shot to inches to save par on the par-3 11th, then drove close to the penalty area left on the par-5 12th and had to pitch out. His approach left him 30 feet short and he made the putt for par to tie Pastore at -13. After both parred the short, par-4 13th, Kong birdied the par-4 14th and Pastore saw that as the dagger. “I think the hole that was pivotal for me was 14,” said Pastore. “I missed a little 5-footer.” Kong birdied there, then lost a shot to Pastore’s birdie on 16 and it came down to 17 and 18, which Kong won seven shots to eight.
Pastore wasn’t surprised that he had caught Kong on the back and admired the champion’s grit in holding on. “I just played golf for the first 12 holes but then looked a leaderboard on 13. I wasn’t surprised. I kind of figured he played two great rounds but it’s hard to back it up. Props to him on a great round [today].”
It was about the same time that Kong realized the last six would be a battle.” My Dad told me he had gone ahead, but the putt on 12, I had a similar one on 5. I had the speed of the greens all weekend long.”
Kong also had a new, less self-critical, less analytical attitude encouraged by his father, who genuinely loves a game he came late to—after his son, who had fenced, played baseball and soccer before he tried golf at about 12—because it so echoed the unpredictable, sometimes unfair life he had experience as a Cambodian refugee and immigrant. “I tell Ras to remember that you get good breaks and bad breaks that when things go wrong, that’s golf, and many other times they went right.” That advice came in handy this week, especially on Torrington’s greens, which were, all agreed, the course’s deceptive defense. Players praised their smoothness despite their difficulty.
Golf course superintendent Jay Vancoughnett, who had predicted a -13 victory, was happy with the weekend result. “We got lots of positive comments from the players and we felt that we were able get the course to where it showed itself well.” Head professional Glenn Carlson echoed those sentiments. “It was a great event. The members were very happy, the players were pleased. It was great success.”
1. Rasmey Kong $12,500
2. Paul Pastore $6250
T4 Blake Morris $2733.33
T4 Babcock Fletcher $2733.33
T4 Jason Thresher $2733.33
T8 Joshua Salah $1650
T8 Michael VanDerLaan $1650
T12 Jeff Evanier $1350
T12 CJ Swift $1350
15 Chris Wiatr $1250
T16 Corey Birch $1100
T16 Bradley Lankler $1100
T16 Evan Beirne $1100
T16 Casey Pyne $1100
T16 Alex Beach $1100
T22 JD Carrabino $937.50
T22 Greg Martin $937.50
T25 Bobby Gage $900.00
27 John Martinchek $875.00
T28 Mike Ballo, Jr. $837.50
T28 Alex Degunzburd $837.50
T31 Jeffrey Wattles $800.00
T33 Geoff Gelderman $762.50
T33 Corey Smith $762.50
35 Ian Orr $700.00
T36 Jerry Courville $650.00
T36 Michael Dominici $650.00
T36 Cory Muller $650.00