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The Great Escape

Old Greenwich (October 6, 2020) Paul Fitzsimmons stood on the 14th tee at Innis Arden Golf Club five holes down with five holes to play against one of the strongest senior players in Connecticut. 

He said being down like that freed him up. 

It must have, because Fitzsimmons then went on a Tiger-esque tear to survive that match and set up an afternoon victory that advanced him to the semifinals of the 14th Connecticut Senior Amateur Championship. He joins Hall of Famer Dave Szewczul, 2018 Match Play champion Pat McGuiness and Mark Vassalotti of Sterling Farms Golf Club, who also pulled off one the championships’ great escapes, coming from three down against 2015 Match Play Champion and 2019 Senior Amateur Champion Bill Hermanson on the first extra hole, after he parred the difficult, downhill, 200-yard 18th for the third time Tuesday.

Fitzsimmons' comeback was surreal. Specifically, he drove the 262-yard 14th green and two-putted from 25 feet for birdie to win the hole over Tom Yellin. He got up and down from the rough at the 421-yard 15th, and won that hole when Yellin’s par attempt slid by. On the 16th, with Yellin 30 feet directly under the hole, Fitzsimmons holed a 60-footer with 8 feet of break to keep the match alive. 

“You know, I stood over that one and I was thinking of those putts Dustin Johnson and John Rahm made,” referring to Tour pro’s 66-footer on top of Johnson’s 43-footer at the BMW Championship. “I thought, Hey, maybe!” 

At 17, after his wedge shot spun off the green some 15 yards from the flag, he salvaged a winning par with a clutch 12-footer after his pitch. When both he and Yellin left their tee shots short on the long par-3 18th, Fitzsimmons pitched to 5 feet and made it to take the hole. He traded bogeys with Yellin, the 2019 Westchester Senior Amateur champion, on the first playoff hole, made another 12-footer to save par on the second, and finally stuck a wedge to 3 feet under the hole and won the match with birdie on the 21st hole. 

Fitzsimmons says he doesn’t remember much about the first nine holes of his afternoon quarterfinal match against fellow Brooklawn member and good friend Mike Hooper, a finalist in the Match Play two years ago.

“I was delirious,” said Fitzsimmons. “I was like, ‘What just happened?” At day's end, he had a bit more perspective. “Looking back, i think hitting that driver on 14 was the turning point. Even though I missed the [eagle] putt, I think that was the big momentum swing.” 

Vassalotti acknowledged the rarity of his upset as well. “Let’s be honest, Bill will beat me nine times out of ten. Unfortunately for him, today was the tenth,” he said. In a day of weird doings we should add that Vassalotti hasn’t played for six weeks, fighting back and rib issues. “I had to sit out the [Senior] Am, I had to sit out the New England Senior Am, all that stuff and it killed me. So for this I said I have to try to play. I hit balls a couple days before, then came out and qualified. And to win two matches is insane.”

McGuiness, who won the Match Play at Gillette Ridge Golf Club in 2018 (over Hooper) defeated Bob Murphy Jr. of Brownson Country Club, one up, to reach the semis. He’ll meet Dave Szewczul at 8:00 tomorrow morning. Vassalotti and Fitzsimmons will go at 8:10. 

Szewczul defeated Dave Jones of Mohegan Sun Golf Club, still in a long recovery from esophageal cancer, who kept things in perspective: “Just playing is icing on the cake,” he said.

In the morning matches:

Jones took out Defending Champion Mark Vasington of Wampanoag, 7 & 5. 

Szewczul defeated 2020 Senior Amateur Champion Dick Stevens in 19 holes.

Murphy defeated Jim Ezold of the Yale Golf Course, 3 & 2.

McGuiness eliminated Joseph Miller of Woodway Country Club 8 & 6.

Hermanson beat Jeff Dolin of Manchester Country Club, 6 & 4.

Vassalotti beat Paul Stancs of Litchfield Country Club, on the final hole, thanks to his first par of the day there. 

Hooper defeated Jim Augur of Wallingford Country Club 3 & 2.

Hooper then met his old friend Fitzsimmons. They had qualified together Monday, Hooper shooting 73 and Fitzimmons 76 on the 6307-yard, par-70 course. “It was a blast,” said Hooper after Monday’s quarterfinal. “It was a grind, but it was a blast. And [Paul] played better than me.”

Fact is, for those 20 holes, from 14 in the morning through 16 in the afternoon, Fitzsimmons played better than almost everybody.