PETERSBURG –– Virginians Steve Serrao (Midlothian) and Col. James Gallagher (Ret.) of Yorktown, as well as J.D. McNeill (Raleigh, N.C.) each made birdie on the first extra hole to reach the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship in a seven-for three playoff in qualifying at the Country Club of Petersburg.
Serrao, Gallagher and McNeill were among the competitors to complete 18-hole qualifying at 2-under-par 70 before punching their tickets for the national championship in the playoff.
The U.S. Mid-Amateur, open to any amateur golfer who is 25 years old by Oct. 5 with a USGA Handicap Index not exceeding 3.4, will be conducted from Oct. 5-10 at the Country Club of Birmingham in Birmingham, Ala.
Serrao was the first to earn a spot in extra holes. He shot 3-under 33 on the inward half to get into the playoff, which included draining a downhill, sidehill 20-footer at the par-5 15th (“A miracle birdie putt,” he said later) before knocking in a 16-footer one hole later.
At the first extra hole, the par-4 first, he watched fellow-competitor Riaz Rattansi’s (London, England) chip shot come up short of the flagstick and used it as a lesson learned when he gave his 55-footer from below the hole a healthy stroke. His birdie chance tracked right to the hole and had enough pace to fall in. Serrao spun around and clenched his right fist in exhilaration as the ball disappeared. He qualified for the U.S. Mid-Amateur for the first time.
“I hit it a little harder,” he said of the birdie make. “It was in the hole the whole way. It just had to get there and it did.”
Shortly after Serrao’s putt fell, next to play, McNeill curled in a left-to-right breaking 18-footer for birdie from left of the hole.
“I gave it a good roll,” he said. “I left my last three chances in regulation short. After seeing basically a 60-footer being made, I had to give it a chance.”
McNeill made more than a two and a half hour drive from Raleigh, N.C., and arrived the morning of the qualifier. The first time he saw the course was when he stepped on the first tee for his 10:27 a.m. starting time. The 31-year-old McNeill made the day-trip worthwhile, earning a spot in the Mid-Amateur in his first attempt.
Gallagher had an incredible route to just get in the playoff, much less reach the national championship. During his 28-year stint in the Air Force, he fractured his back in 2001 and had experimental surgery in February 2002. As a result of the surgery, he has titanium railroad – about six inches long – holding his back together.
At No. 15 during the qualifier, Gallagher basically threw out his back and admittedly wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to continue.
“I was just trying to make contact with the ball … and I did,” Gallagher said.
That’s for sure. At the par-5 15th, he managed to sink an 18-footer for birdie, but after the hole was completed, he had to lie down in hopes of giving the tender area some relief. He somehow continued on, knocking his 9-iron approach at the par-4 17th hole to 12 feet for birdie that got him to even par for the round.
Things would only get better for Gallagher who played in throbbing pain toward the conclusion of his round. At the par-4 18th hole, his 125-yard pitching wedge landed 3 feet beyond the hole, spun back and scurried into the hole for an incredible eagle-2.
After playing the partially-blind shot, he remembers telling a fellow-competitor in his group of three on the way to the green: “I hope that thing is good enough for a tap-in because I really don’t want to bend over to mark [the ball].”
The last time he had to pick the ball out of the hole during the qualifier was the most memorable—it came after he sank a 7-footer for birdie on the first extra hole. Gallagher went through therapeutic movements to get his back in better shape before the playoff began. Still, he was in obvious pain and had to hunch over in an exaggerated manner just to get comfortable enough to hit his second shot at the first extra hole.
“I knew all of these guys played solidly to shoot 70 and I kind of snuck in by holing it [at No. 18],” said Gallagher, 55. “I wanted to hit it close (in the playoff) to show it wasn’t a fluke. It’s funny how your pride works like that.”
Incredibly, Gallagher finished birdie-eagle-birdie – using just eight strokes in his final three holes – to earn a spot in the U.S. Mid-Amateur for a second consecutive year.
“I guess I’m a good closer. Who knew?” Gallagher said with a smile.
He battled the putter at times in his deciding match in finishing runner-up to Keith Decker at last week’s VSGA Senior Amateur and could only smile at the irony of not needing to worry about his stroke after holing out at No. 18.
“The biggest shot of the day and I didn’t even need a putter,” he said with a laugh.
Gallagher has called this season perhaps his most satisfying. In addition to advancing to the final of last week’s VSGA Senior Amateur, in 2013, he’s won the VSGA Senior Four-Ball Championship (with Jim Nirich of Catlett) and qualified for both the USGA Senior Amateur and now the Mid-Amateur.
The three competitors who successfully qualified were joined in extra holes by four others, who also logged rounds of 70: Brian Bassett (Charlottesville, Va.), Roger Newsom (Virginia Beach, Va.), Rattansi and Uly Grisette (Winston-Salem, N.C.). Bassett and Newsom earned the first and second alternate spots, respectively.
The two Virginians who qualified are among eight commonwealth residents to reach the U.S. Mid-Amateur. In addition to Gallagher and Serrao, Virginians who also earned spots in the national championship through sectional qualifying thus far are: Benjamin Campbell (Cleveland), Jay Fisher (Charlottesville), Andrew Gundersen (Woodbridge), Dan Hosek (Alexandria), Jason Pool (Dunn Loring) and Scott Shingler (Haymarket).
The Mid-Amateur is one of 13 national championships conducted annually by the United States Golf Association, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.
PETERSBURG, Va. –– Results from 18-hole U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship qualifying at the Country Club of Petersburg (7,007 yards, par 36-36—72) on Tuesday, Sept. 3.
a – denotes alternate
* – Steve Serrao (Midlothian, Va.), 37-33—70
* – J.D. McNeill (Raleigh, N.C.), 35-35—70
* – Col. James Gallagher (Yorktown, Va.), 38-32—70
a – Brian Bassett (Charlottesville, Va.), 37-33—70
a – Roger Newsom (Virginia Beach, Va.), 35-34—70
* – denotes qualified in extra holes, seven competitors for three spots