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Van Ness Owns Early Public Links Lead

Bloomfield (August 6).  Gabe Van Ness is a numbers guy. Today his number was 64.

Van Ness, who headed from the golf course Tuesday to take a practice CPA exam, seemed as charmingly astonished by his number in the first round of the 34th Public Links Championship as the rest of the field was.

It was hard to calculate, after all, that you might shoot 6-under on a Pete Dye golf course like Wintonbury Hills when you hit no par 5s in two, made a double bogey on one of those par 5s, and had a history of never shooting lower than 69 in a tournament before.

“It was crazy,” said Van Ness. “I don’t even know what to say. I just made everything. It was one of those days when the hole looked like the size of a basketball hoop.”

The math: Van Ness, 22,  made eight birdies, four on each side. He birdied the 2nd, 3rd 4th and 9th holes on the front, including both par 3s. He doubled the 550-yard 8th hole after hitting his tee shot into a bunker. “I made a mess out of that one,” he said. He shot 33.

On the back, he birdied the par-4 11th, and then had another string of three in a row, beginning with he 551-yard, par 5 13th and finishing with two of Wintonbury’s toughest par 4s, the 14th and 15th, both more than 420 yards. He parred the final three holes, coming close to a birdie on the 18th, for 31.

“My irons were good. I hit one or two really close, but most were 12 feet or so. I’ve putted well before, but never like this,” he said.  “I was really seeing the line.”

Van Ness, of Clinton, recently completed business graduate school at Bryant University and will start his first real job at PricewaterhouseCoopers next week, making this his final tournament of the season. He was one of ten players under par, a group that included Defending Public Links Champion John Abbott (-1) and 2019 Connecticut Amateur Champion Rick Dowling (-2).

Finishing long after Van Ness, in the second to last group of the day, was Sacred Heart junior Jake Sullivan, 21, who threatened to match him. Sullivan shot 31 on the front with three birdies and an eagle on the 300-yard, par-4 5th, where he drove next to the green and chipped in. He said he hit the ball less squarely on the back,but made two 2s to go with two bogeys for 35 and 67. He bogeyed the 18th after a disappointing wedge shot. That, and a tee shot into the penalty area on the 10th, were uncharacteristic mistakes, and he was philosophical about them.

“Those things happen,” Sullivan said. “It was a good round. I was proud of the way I grinded it out. And hats off to [Van Ness]. That’s a great round.” Sullivan’s round, like Van Ness’, represented something of a breakthrough. “My resume’s kind of bleak so far,” he laughed. “I won a couple of junior events, but nothing special. But my game’s coming around.”

A shot behind Sullivan was Tallwood Country Club’s Rob Tedoldi, who birdied the par-4 18th to shoot 67.

Amateur Champion Dowling’s number was different than Van Ness’ primarily because of a more frustrating experience on the greens. He hit every one, but had a much more difficult time getting putts to fall. “That [64] was out there, for sure. I hit every green. I had probably 12 putts within 15 feet and made just a couple,” said Dowling, who has played consistently well this season, having just made the quarterfinals in the Met Amateur. 

Also at minus 2 was James Sheltman of Alling Memorial, who finished T3 in the 2018 Public Links at Timberlin, reached match play at this year’s Amateur and the final day at the Connecticut Open.

For Van Ness, it was a special day for other reasons.  His father Stephen was there to share his red numbers, caddying for him for the first time in a couple of years. Steve is not a golfer, he says, but has encouraged Gabe as has his grandfather, who gave him a set of plastic clubs when he was 4. When Gabe, a lefty, was 12 he and Steve met a high school golf coach at Hunter Golf Course. The coach looked at Gabe’s swing and said Steve had done a great job coaching his son. “I said, ‘I didn’t do anything. He’s been watching Tiger and Phil on TV and swinging that plastic club,’” said Steve. Young Van Ness swings left and shoots left in hockey, but otherwise, for example when doing spreadsheets, he’s a righty.

Does he have a number in mind for tomorrow? “I’m just trying to enjoy it,” he grinned.

The cut after round one fell at + 3 (73), with exactly 30 players advancing to 18 holes of stroke play tomorrow.

Among those also making the cut:

         —Dave Szewczul, returning from surgery last year, a five-time Public Links champion.                  

         —Both Michael Thompson and Justin Beal, who as a team shot 65 (5) to finish runner-up at the Connecticut Four-Ball.

         —Tom Brett, the 2017 Senior Match Play champion

         —Seth Egnasko, 2019 Connecticut Amateur semi-finalist

         —Chris Ayers, medalist in stroke play qualifying in the Amateur

         —Bruce Kraczkowsky, 2016 Senior Match Play champion

         —Glen Boggini, 2014 Public Links champion