by Rick Jenkins

BERNARDSVILLE, N.J. Like it was scripted, the championship match came down to the final putt on the final hole. When Michael Deo dropped a six footer for birdie on the 18th hole at Somerset Hills Country Club, he and Brian Komline capped a thrilling match against Domenic Gatto and Riley Powers with a 1-up victory in the 78th Four Ball Championship.

“I knew I just needed to start it on line and the slope would take it to the hole,” Deo said referring to the slick, downhill putt he faced for the championship. A six foot uphill putt would have been preferable, since downhill putts at Somerset Hills were quite treacherous on the firm greens. It was figuring out the right line on these beguiling A.W. Tillinghast greens that consternated so many of the players, but Deo had this one figured out and poured his putt in the middle of the hole.

As important as Deo’s putt was on 18, Komline sank an equally important putt on the previous hole. That putt was all of 40 feet and, as it turned out, erased a 1-down deficit for Deo/Komline and squared the match at a critical juncture. But 17 easily could have gone the other way and changed the fate of the match altogether; this hole was a great example of the twists and turns of match play.

Much of the match leading up to the closing holes was a duel on the putting greens. At this level of competition, with the State’s leading amateurs pitted against each other in a team best ball format, the name of the game is making birdies and eagles. Deo and Komline took a 2-up lead on the front side by virtue of Deo’s birdie on the short par-4 fifth hole and Komline’s eagle on the next, a 500-yard par-5 where he hit 9-iron into the green for his second shot. But the Gatto/Powers team answered with two clutch holes of their own, and by the tenth hole the match was all square. Powers managed a delicate two-putt for par from above the hole on the long par-3 eighth, and Gatto returned the favor of eagle on the tenth, another short par-5 which the players took advantage of. After trading wins on two more holes, the teams were deadlocked once again after the fifteenth hole.

After holding a 1-up or 2-up lead for much of the afternoon, it must have come as a shock to Deo and Komline to drop the 16th hole and go 1-down late in the match. Both players came up short of the green on the 170 yard par-3 and failed to save par, while Powers and Gatto were safely aboard with a routine two-putt for the win.

Seventeen was the turning point. The hole is a short par-4 of only 380 yards, but its roller-coaster undulation makes it a very dangerous hole to play. The drive is uphill and completely blind, and the line must be perfect or the slope on the other side of the hill will kick the ball right into fescue or fairway bunkers. In many ways, this hole epitomizes the short but challenging par-4s designed so well by the classic architects like Tillinghast, who built Somerset Hills in 1917. Knowing that Powers drove it into the fescue and was likely out of the hole, Deo decided to lay back with a four-iron off the tee, positioning himself at the top of the hill. He proceeded to hit an 8-iron into the green to about seven feet. “My strategy was to hit first and put something close that would put pressure on them,” he said. But Gatto, who challenged the line with driver off the tee, ended up within fifty yards of the green, from where he stuck his approach inside of Deo’s. In the meantime, Komline, who had matched Gatto’s long drive, tried to play a bump and run into the green, only to see his ball check about forty feet short of the hole. Never to be counted out with a putter in his hands, Komline drained the cross-country putt for birdie. Gatto’s putt suddenly became longer and he lost the advantage of capturing a read from Deo, who picked up after his partner made birdie. Gatto’s six-foot birdie putt slid by the edge of the hole, and the match was all square going to the last.

On that fateful penultimate hole, match play again delivered an outcome that was not the expected outcome. A Komline miss and a Deo miss on 17 would have had Gatto putting for the match – a potential 2&1 victory – with the benefit of a read from Deo’s putt. A Komline miss and a Deo make would have preserved a great opportunity for the Gatto/Powers team to take their 1-up lead to 18. But the long Komline make changed everything.

On 18, Gatto/Powers had a chance to make birdie that would have kept the match square and forced extra holes. Gatto faced a putt of about twelve feet following a wedge into the green from 75 yards, but the putt lost its speed and broke off below the hole – setting the table for the winning birdie putt by Deo.

Somerset Hills proved an excellent choice for a Four Ball setting. It is a great match play course with tough par-3s, plenty of birdie opportunities on the par-4s, and three short par-5s that present definite eagle possibilities. Brian Komline calls it a “thinker’s course,” noting especially several short par-4s that if played properly can be birdied and if played improperly can be easily double-bogied. It also played firm and fast for the Four Ball, adding another element of thought to navigating the course. “This is the best conditioned golf course we played all year [at NJSGA events],” Komline added.

Both finalist teams reached the championship match with 3&2 victories in the semi-finals. Deo and Komline beat Gregg Angelillo and Keith Davidson of Neshanic Valley Golf Course, making seven birdies in the sixteen holes they played. Gatto and Powers prevailed over Rish Patel and Philip Fabrizio of Knickerbocker Country Club in a close battle until they won three holes in a row to conclude the match on the sixteenth hole. The full match play bracket can be viewed here.

The 78th Four Ball Championship marks Deo’s third victory in the Four Ball, having won most recently in 2007 with Gregg Angelillo at Montclair Golf Club, their home turf at the time. It is Komline’s second victory in the event after a 2008 victory with partner Niall Handley at Spring Brook Country Club.

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