CHATHAM, N.J. No one wanted to win this year’s Amateur Championship more than Michael Deo. After four runner-up finishes since 1997 and success in other NJSGA championships, such as the Mid-Amateur and Four-Ball, the big title was proving elusive. He knew he was playing well and he liked the way Fairmount Country Club set up for his style of play; he thought this could be his year.
He was right. With rounds of 71-72-75-73 for a total of 291, or three over par, Deo marched to victory in the 108th Amateur Championship at Fairmount yesterday. One might think the demons of past close calls would intervene, but there was determination and a singular focus on getting the job done. You could see it in his face. All parts of his physical game were solid, but it was the mental toughness that carried him across the finish line.
As a co-leader with Blue Heron Pines’ Anthony Campanile going into the 36-hole final day, Deo figured the finish would be tight. “I knew I’d have to stay right around par for the day to have a chance,” he said following the victory. His birdie-less 75 in the third round on Thursday morning was a departure from his game plan, however. Fortunately for Deo, scores were high that morning and he managed to take a two-stroke lead into the final round in the afternoon. Co-leader Campanile struggled in the morning round, and new contenders emerged in the likes of Mike Meisenzahl of Little Mill CC and Jordon Gibbs of Bedens Brook. The rest of the leader board was deep in talent, with Campanile, Robert Cronheim of Twin Brooks CC, Marc Issler of Woodlake CC, and Kyle Hartlaub of Canoe Brook CC just a few strokes back. Tom Gramigna, the defending champion, was also back in contention with a morning round of 73 and a neck injury that was feeling better.
Paired with Campanile, a 2008 graduate of the Monmouth University golf program, Deo pulled his opening drive of the fourth round and bogied the par-5 first hole. But a birdie soon thereafter on the par-4 third hole settled his nerves and put him in the right comfort zone to finish the round. “That [birdie] got me back to even par and after the 3rd hole I felt comfortable the rest of the way,” Deo said about that turning point in the round. From there on out, his strategy was fairways and greens, and he stuck to it. A birdie on 12 took him into red figures for the round and a stinging 4-iron on the 216-yard par-3 13th hole nearly led to another birdie, the putt left hanging on the front lip of the hole.
With Meisenzahl, Hartlaub, and Gramigna the closest threats, Deo had to stay focused. Hartlaub mounted a charge, making five birdies and pulling to within two strokes of Deo on the 11th hole, but a bogie on #16 and a double bogey on the finishing hole derailed his chances. He finished tied for third place with Gramigna. Two strokes would be the closest anyone would get to Deo in the final round – until he bogied the last and his margin of victory was one over Meisenzahl.
Coming down the stretch, Deo made two sand “saves” that were big factors in his win. They were not sand saves in the usual sense of up-and-down pars, but rather two well-executed bunker shots that protected bogie – and his lead. On #17, a 196-yard uphill par-3, Deo pulled his tee shot into the left greenside bunker and was left with a very awkward stance with both feet outside the bunker. With the hole on the far side of the green, and facing out-of-bounds if he caught the shot thin, Deo played a magnificent shot to about eight feet. On #18, he again over-drew his approach shot and landed it in the left greenside bunker, up against the front lip. With another awkward stance, he again exploded his ball safely out to par-saving range. Although he missed the par putts on 17 and 18, the consequences of not executing either of those closing bunker shots would have been disastrous for him.
Deo enjoyed a little help from his friends this week. Looking to make a putter change at the start of the season, he borrowed a putter from past NJSGA Open champion Brian Komline in April. Between the club’s bloodlines, having been the putter Komline used in his first State Open win in 2005 at Fairmount, and the TLC applied to it by Deo leading up to the Amateur, the karma was perfect between Deo and the Scotty Cameron Studio Design 1.5. He ran in 11 birdies on the week and suffered only three three-putts.
For the 32 year-old Deo, the Amateur win comes after several strong seasons of competitive play. In NJSGA events, he won the Mid-Amateur Championship promptly after turning 30 in 2007, and followed it with a victory in that year’s Four-Ball Championship on his then-home course Montclair Golf Club with partner Gregg Angelillo. The pair made a return trip to the finals of the Four-Ball last year, but were denied by Brian Komline and Niall Handley. Outside the NJSGA realm, Deo’s recent victories consist of two New York City Amateurs (2005 and 2008) and a Bergen County Amateur in 2005. He has been a fixture on the New Jersey competitive scene for many years, since winning the NJSGA Junior Championship at the age of 17 in 1994. He has played on numerous Compher Cup and Stoddard Bowl teams for the NJSGA against other area golf associations. He works for Willis Group in its construction industry practice, writing property and casualty insurance for the construction industry. He also is a recent newlywed, marrying wife Sylvia in 2007.
Fairmount was a solid test for the State’s best amateur players. Not overpowering in length, it did play long this week due to wet conditions. The course’s most demanding feature is the precision it requires off the tee. With many holes lined by trees and out-of-bounds lurking on 13 of the 18 holes, hitting fairways is a must to scoring well at Fairmount. The greens are fair and the more challenging hole locations this week were held in check by not excessively fast greens. The course was in immaculate condition thanks to the preparation of Superintendent Vince Bracken. The Hal Purdy design celebrated its 50th year in 2008.