LUKE GRABOYES LATE BIRDIES EARNS STATE OPEN TRIUMPH

It was only four years ago when Luke Graboyes of Watchung Valley won the New Jersey high school championship, but Thursday he claimed his biggest victory when he shot even par-72 and won the New Jersey State Golf Association 97th Open Championship by one stroke at 7,094-yard, par-72 Metedeconk National Golf Club in Jackson, N.J.

Graboyes, 22, started the day three shots off the pace at 148 after Wednesday’s second round of the 54-hole event but birdied his 14th and 15th holes, then saved par on No. 18 to claim victory.

His four-over-par 72-220 edged professional Grant Sturgeon of Arcola Country Club (75-221) by one shot and 17-year-old amateur Brendan Hansen of Spring Lake (77-222), the second-round leader, by two shots. Sturgeon collected the $15,000 check as low pro in the $75,000 event sponsored by Lincoln Motor Company. It was only the ninth time in 97 years that an amateur won the Open championship, but third time in six years that it happened.

Graboyes  is the second amateur to win the State Open in four years, 19-year-old Max Greyserman of Crestmont doing it in 2014.

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“It seems I’ve been playing in NJSGA events forever and never won any of them. And when I finally win, it’s the biggest one of all,” said Graboyes, 22, a recent graduate of Cornell University who won the Ivy League championship on this same course in 2016.

Tyler Hall of Upper Montclair, the defending champion who was seeking his third straight title, failed to make the cut due to recent shoulder surgery.

Metedeconk National proved exceedingly difficult for the field of 109 golfers, as only two broke par, Dave McGovern of Brooklake shooting 71 in Tuesday’s first round, and Hansen 71 on Wednesday. Last year Hall won at 15-under-par at Galloping Hill Golf Course in Kenilworth.

Amateurs John Felitto of Echo Lake, a Notre Dame golfer, and Ryan Davis of New Jersey National, tied for fourth place at 224. Michael Graboyes of Watchung Valley, Luke’s younger brother who plays golf at Cornell, tied for sixth with Jake Mayer of Plainfield, an incoming freshman at Princeton University, and two-time State Open Champion Frank Esposito Jr. of Forsgate , all at 225.

While Sturgeon and Hansen played together in a near match-play format, Graboyes was two groups ahead and grinding for pars.

A double bogey on the second hole “because I was super nervous” was a setback. But he birdied three of the next eight holes, against one bogey. His birdie at the par-4 No. 10 got him tied for the lead with Hansen. But Graboyes quickly fell back to the back after back-to-back bogeys at the par-3 no. 11 and par-5 No. 12.

“I knew I was still in it f I could play real well coming in and get in under par,” said Graboyes, a graduate of Watchung Hills Regional in Warren.

He did just that with the birdies at Nos. 14 and 15. At the par-5, 520-yard No. 14, he laid up, fearing the rough that had tripped him up a day earlier. His 63-yard shot to the green ended up 10 feet from the pin to set up that birdie.

On the par-3, 19-yard No. 15, his tee shot ended 21 yards behind the hole on the back fringe.  But that putt wound its way to the cup, and suddenly, Graboyes was back in front as Hansen and Sturgeon  continued to struggle.

Graboyes saved par on the par-4 No. 18 after his drive left him in a wooded area to the right of the fairway and his second shot placed him 55 yards from the hole. His chip from there ended two feet from the cup.

Hansen, the 17-year-old who attends Christian Brothers Academy, finally got back even with Graboyes when he birdied the par-4, 436-yard No. 17. He busted a long drive there and his approach left him within three feet of the hole to set up the birdie.

With Graboyes safely in the clubhouse, Hansen needed a par on the par-4 No. 18 to force a three-hole playoff. But his drive got away from him into the right rough. He chipped to the left side of the fairway and his third shot ended in deep rough behind the green. He took a double bogey on the hole and settled for third place.

Sturgeon needed a birdie there to force a playoff, but his second shot ended on the fringe on the uphill side of the green, and his birdie attempt slid past the cup.

“I putted pretty good all day and made the clutch ones at the end. I can’t believe I won the State Open. I didn’t think I played that well,” Graboyes said.

“Winning the State Open has been on my radar since 2014 when Max Greyserman won. I didn’t think I was that far behind him. The pros don’t intimidate me anymore. I know if I can play well, I can win.”

Graboyes said he will pro in time for the Met Open to be played Aug 22-24 at Hollywood Golf Club in Deal. He will then go to Florida and play in mini-tours.

“The greens were fair. They were smooth and quick, but I putted incredibly poorly all week,” said Sturgeon, 39, in his first year as head pro at Arcola after serving as an assistant at New York’s Winged Foot. “I came here prepared to win, but neither of us (he and Hansen) could make a putt,” said the native of Kentucky.

“I played the best I played all summer this week. If I had three or four shots back, the results would have been a lot different,” Hansen said.

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