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LUDLOW, Massachusetts – James Imai (George Wright Golf Course) has spent his summer crisscrossing the United States in elite amateur competitions, with events nearby like the Northeast Amateur in Rhode Island, to faraway trips to Mississippi and Minnesota, and most recently the U.S. Amateur Championship at the historic and rigorous Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania.
But with two weeks to go before returning to Northwestern University for his junior year, the Brookline native decided to take make a return to the Mass Golf scene. And he did it in style.
Imai shot a bogey-free 7-under-par 65 to take the lead in the first round of the 40th Massachusetts Amateur Public Links Championship on Tuesday at Westover Golf Course (par-72, 6,617-yards). In the process, he tied the competitive course record set by 1969 U.S. Open champion Orville Moody in 1965.
“I figured just make as many birdies as you can and see what it adds up to,” said Imai, a three-time Mass Junior Amateur champion. “It felt really easy. You have to hit it off the tee well here, and when you do that you give yourself chances. I hit well off the tee, and when I missed it, I still had a way to advance it.”
Defending champion Bill Drohen (Brookmeadow Country Club) and Christopher Boyd (Pinehills Golf Club) are three strokes back at 4-under 68, while 2020 Mass Mid-Amateur champion Arthur Zelmati (Cranberry Valley Golf Course) and Brian Foley (Cyprian Keyes GC) finished 3-under.
Out of 132 starters, the low 60 scorers (cut 5-over 77) advanced to Wednesday’s final round, which begins at 7:30 a.m. All players will tee off from hole one, with the leaders going off last.
Established in 1982, the Massachusetts Amateur Public Links is open to amateur golfers who maintain a handicap index not exceeding 12.0 and who are bona fide public course players at a public Mass Golf Member Club, a course/club that provides playing opportunities for the general public seven days a week.
After playing a 7,254-yard, par-70 track at Oakmont last week, James Imai was licking his chops taking on the par-72, 6,617-yard track at Westover. He came out firing with birdies on holes 2, 3, and 5, all par-4s, and adding another on the par-5 9th to make the turn at 4-under 32.
Imai hit driver well throughout the round, but his sequence of the day came with an eagle on the par-5 12th, and he didn’t even need the big stick. After reaching the edge of the fairway with a 3-wood, he hit 5-iron to the back of the green and made the 40-footer, moving to 6-under.
“I putted well today so it was nice to make a long one,” Imai said. “The greens are rolling really good here. As long as you have a look at it, the greens are pretty flat so you’re not going to have to play six feet of break on putts which is nice.”
After four straight pars, Imai pulled even with the record on the 17th. He hit 5-iron off the tee and put it in the rough to about 90-yards. He then hit a wedge that rolled up to about 3 feet and was able to knock it in to move to 7-under. Though his second shot on the 18th ended up in the 15th fairway, Imai hit his approach over the trees to the right edge of the green and was able to two-putt to close out a 65.
“It’s nice to always to be in contention anywhere,” Imai said. “I think tomorrow I just have to do what I can and not worry about score. I’d like to hit it a bit closer to the hole. Some of my wedges I hit to 25-30 feet, which I’d like to hit those closer. Other than that, I’m looking forward to the challenge tomorrow.”
Defending champion Bill Drohen, the only 4-time winner of the APL, also made things look fairly simple at Westover. Despite a bogey to start the round, Drohen rolled in three straight birdies on holes 4-6 and added another on the 9th to move to 4-under. Though he gave one back with a bogey on the 15th, Drohen closed by getting up and down with a chip and a putt on the 18th.
“It was a good respectable round,” Drohen said. “Ending on a good note is always good coming into the next day.”
Ever since winning the first time in 2003, Drohen said he’s always prepared to play the Amateur Public Links, regardless of how much competitive golf he’s played during the summer.
“I love the Publinx,” Drohen said. “When I do come out to this tournament I’m at least hitting balls in the net in my backyard and doing a lot of conditioning, getting ready for it. To win it as many times as I have, it’s a real confidence booster, and obviously, I love being here.”
As for being defending champion, “When you get on the first tee and they announce that you’re the defending champion, I got a little zing, and I feel like I have to perform a little better,” Drohen added.
But most important was Drohen was having his son and “best friend” Matthew, 11, as his caddie.
“It’s good having him on the bag because it takes a lot of pressure off me,” the elder Drohen said. “We keep it light out there.”
Added Matthew: “He helps me chip and putt a lot so it’s good to help him.”
Christopher Boyd made the turn at 1-under but surged into contention by going 4-under over the next of four holes. In addition to birdies on the 10th and 13th, Boyd made eagle on the 12th. Imai and Joe Wilson (Wyckoff Country Club) were the only other players to make eagle on the 12th.
Brian Foley (Cyprian Keyes Golf Club) led the afternoon wave, coming in at 3-under 69 to finish the day in the top five. Birdies on holes 2, 3, 6, and 7 moved him to 3-under at the turn, and then he showed some perseverance on the back nine. After an errant tee shot and punch out led to a double-bogey on the 16th, Foley rallied back and concluded the round with a 3-foot birdie putt.
“That was huge,” Foley said. “I was really bummed after the double. I worked really hard all day to go low. So to get up-and-down on 18 was huge.”
Foley said the tree-lined holes at Westover reminds him of Cyprian Keyes, where he grew up working in the cart barn.
“Playing Cyprian growing up, I feel like I can play anywhere,” Foley said. “I think the only difference is this place gives you a little more room to hit your driver. At Cyprian, you run out of room and you have to place your ball out there with some irons and hybrids.”
With helicopters and various aircraft flying over the course frequently, golfers get constant reminders that there’s a military base right alongside Westover Golf Course. The municipal course opened as a nine-hole course in 1947 as an extension of the Westover Air Force base when it was an active part of the Strategic Air Command. The course expanded to 18-holes in 1957.
Westover Air Reserve Base, as it’s now called, opened in 1939 in anticipation of World War II and served as a bomber training base and port of embarkation/debarkation during the war. The base was deactivated in the 1970s, but today is the nation’s largest Air Force Reserve base and is home to more than 5,500 military and civilian workers.
Up until the 1970s, the course was operated and maintained as a recreational facility for the use of personnel assigned at Westover, with clubs provided for those without equipment.
But that changed after the base was deactivated. According to Bill Kubinski, longtime Director of Golf at Westover Golf Course, the Town of Ludlow purchased the course for $1.74 in 1973, opening it to the public.
Today, the course has a traditional New England layout, winding along pine and hardwood, and tree-lined, narrow fairways in a natural setting. There are doglegs, water hazards, and a modest amount of sand traps mostly guarding the greens. From the tips, it can play to 7,025 yards, 73.7/131, course/slope ratings with three shorter tees. (Hole 10, the original first hole is pictured below [far left].)
The original architect is Orrin Smith, pictured below (middle) with a redesign by Al Zikorus. Zikorus was a Sergeant in World War II and earned a purple heart when his plane was shot down over Germany. He then went on to work for Smith, who retired in 1955. Zikorus took over his practice and was elected into the American Society Of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) in 1969, and as an ASGCA Fellow in 1992.
The first head pro was Jimmy Nichols, pictured below (far right), who became the first one-armed golfer to play at the Masters and PGA Championship. He lost his arm in 1929 in a train-car accident in Texas. In 2012, he was inducted into the Western Mass Golf Hall of Fame.
Westover has hosted several Mass Golf qualifiers in recent years, and last hosted the state Amateur Public Links in 1999.
One of its most accomplished members is Jack Kearney, who served in the Air National Guard before flying commercial flights for Delta. Kearney, a native of nearby East Longmeadow, won both the 2019 New England Senior Amateur and the 2019 Massachusetts Senior Amateur. Kearney splits his time during the year between Massachusetts and Georgia.