By Rick Jenkins

MORRISTOWN, N.J. - When Brian Gaffney walked off the last hole at Spring Brook Country Club on July 16th a State Open champion, no one could say that he did not earn it. The 39 year-old Head Professional from Rumson Country Club has the talent, the experience, and an assortment of other victories to merit the stamp “Open Champion,” but the title simply had eluded him. He was leading the Open last year at Rock Spring Club when Brett Jones of Trump National – Bedminster eagled the par-5 14 hole, leapfrogging Gaffney from one stroke behind to one stroke ahead and eventually winning by two. He was close two years ago at Alpine when he entered the final day as co-leader but a disappointing round dropped him to a seventh place finish. And he was really close in 1998 at Spring Lake when amateur Ken Macdonald prevailed in a playoff.

When he put himself in contention this year, Gaffney’s game rose to the occasion and he closed the door with solid play. He played nearly flawless golf over the final nine holes, and his momentum carried over to a playoff in which he defeated New Jersey newcomer Bobby Gage for the victory.

Gaffney’s expectations entering Open week were not especially high. He was practicing less and trying to spend more time with his wife and young children, and he felt his game was not sharp. His lowest competitive round to date was a 68 at the Charity Clambake in June. So when he opened with 66 at Spring Brook, he was pleasantly surprised – but he was the only one. Although his second round was six strokes higher at two-over par 72, he was still in a strong position to win, one stroke behind Brooklake’s Frank Esposito who had shot 67-70.

With perennial contender and 1999 Open champion Esposito and Gaffney one-two in the standings, and paired together for the final round, everyone expected a head-to-head duel between these two top golfers. But it never really materialized. Esposito made a costly double-bogey on the long par-3 second hole which seemed to take the wind out of his sails; he never found any momentum and made only one birdie in the final round. The duel that did emerge was between Gaffney and Gage, a former Nationwide Tour player who took a teaching job at Forsgate and moved to New Jersey earlier this year. Gage began the final round alone in third place, having opened with rounds of 67-72.

Playing in the group ahead of Gaffney/Esposito, Gage took a two-stroke lead on them with birdies on holes six and seven. When he gave one back on the tough par-3 ninth hole that marks the beginning of “The Gauntlet,” Spring Brook’s difficult array of three consecutive par-3s, Gage ended the front side with a one-stroke lead. But Gaffney’s aggressive 6-iron to four feet on #10 enabled a birdie that would tie Gage for the lead and set up the duel that would last for the next eight holes – and beyond. “The irons I hit on nine and ten felt like a weight had been lifted,” Gaffney said. “Much of my iron play on the front side had been mediocre; those were the first really solid iron shots I hit,” he added. The rest of Gaffney’s back nine would be a lesson in ball-striking. Another great iron approach followed on the eleventh hole, the final chapter in The Gauntlet which Gaffney played at one-under par in the final round, and a huge drive and crisp approach shot on #13, the longest par-4 on the course, led to a solid par on a hole that averaged 4.5 strokes in the final round.

Gaffney’s birdies in the final round were not abundant, but they were well placed. The birdie on the tenth tied him for the lead with Gage and gave his iron play a much-needed boost for the back nine, and his birdie on the fifteenth re-tied him for the lead after Gage made birdie on 14. Although playing a group apart, the two players were neck-and-neck coming down the stretch and had rightly surmised by then that the tournament was a two-horse race. They traded bogies – Gage on #16 to a three-putt and Gaffney on #17 to a bunkered drive – and finished out the round tied for the lead at -2.

The only adversity Gaffney faced in the final round came on #17. A short but beguiling par-5 at only 467 yards, the seventeenth is all about the drive. A well placed drive between fairway cross-bunkers that also avoids a brook meandering up the right side will determine the difference between playing this hole under par or worse. Gaffney’s drive on 17 failed to carry the last of the cross bunkers on the right side, hitting the bank and falling back into the sand. A forced 7-iron clipped the bank and settled in the rough on top, leaving him with a bad lie and awkward stance and the State Open on the line. He advanced the ball only about 150 yards and came up with an even worse lie in thick greenside rough, leading to the bogie that dropped him back into a tie with Gage at -2.

With both players parring 18, the second consecutive NJSGA major championship would be decided by a playoff. In June, Brian Komline won the Amateur Championship at Montclair Golf Club in a playoff against Pat Wilson.

In the three-hole aggregate playoff starting on Spring Brook’s seventh hole, it was advantage Gaffney after he opened with a birdie to Gage’s par. The next hole, the 425 yard par-4 eighth, was decisive as Gage drove into a fairway bunker from which he failed to reach the green, resulting in bogie. With a two-stroke lead heading into the final playoff hole, Gaffney played guardedly to make sure he kept his ball dry on the long par-3 over water, and accepted bogie for the one-stroke victory.

At long last, the C.W. Badenhausen Trophy would have Brian Gaffney’s name engraved on it. “This is my biggest win in the State,” he said. “I’m proud of my performance competing on the national stage at the PGA of America’s Stroke Play Championship in 2004 [which Gaffney won at PGA Golf Club in Florida], but to win my first State Open competing against my peers makes this my favorite win,” he added. Gaffney’s wins in the New Jersey Section of the PGA are numerous: the Match Play Championship in 2005, the Charity Classic on his home turf at Rumson in 2008, and the Charity Clambake at Rockaway River in 2002 and 2009. He is an accomplished and well-respected player.

Was Gaffney nervous playing-off against an opponent with PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour experience? “Yes and no,” Gaffney said about Gage. “I actually played some mini-tour events with Bobby in the late ‘90s, so he is not an unknown quantity to me. He put me at ease when he said, ‘I couldn’t imagine facing anyone better in the playoff than you.’ Bobby will definitely be a factor in Met area events,” Gaffney said.

As for other contenders, no one else mounted a serious charge in the final round. Although Esposito began the final round as the leader, his four-over par 74 dropped him to a fourth place finish. Mark McCormick, the Suburban Head Professional who won the 2008 State Open at Alpine, and Chris Dachisen of North Jersey, a two-time State Open champion, started the final round in a log-jam with seven other players five strokes behind Esposito, but three bogies each on the front side prevented them from gaining any ground. McCormick ended up tied for nineteenth place and Dachisen tied for thirteenth. Domenic Gatto, the amateur from Eagle Oaks Golf Club, played the best round of any of the players who sat in this log-jam, closing with an even-par 70 to earn fifth place and low amateur honors.

The low round of the day, and of the tournament for that matter, belonged to Jeff Bonicky of Sea Oaks Golf Club, whose 65 catapulted him from twenty-first place to third place. Another strong closing round, a 66 from Greg Baker of Rockaway River Country Club, earned him a top ten finish.

Kudos are in order for the staff of Spring Brook Country Club for their exceptional management of the rain-hampered week. Rains pelted the course during the first and second rounds, causing three suspensions of play and the eventual one-day delay of the second and third rounds. Bob Carey, Spring Brook’s superintendent, and his staff performed miracles in removing water from the golf course and preparing it quickly for further play. General Manager Michael Rudon was a constant presence in overseeing the club’s operations and kept all of the players, officials and guests well fed.

Walter J. Travis, the Golden Age golf course architect and early pioneer of American golf, would be proud. His course in Morristown – only recently ascribed to him – distinguished itself as a strong test of golf in a splendid setting. Next year, he’ll be hosting it again as the NJSGA Open Championship returns to Hollywood Golf Club in Deal.

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