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James Gallagher-Keith Decker Final at the 66th VSGA Senior Amateur Championship

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by Arthur Utley

CHARLOTTESVILLE –– First-time participants Keith Decker of Martinsville and Col. James Gallagher (Ret.) of Yorktown will go head-to-head Friday in the final of the 66th Virginia State Golf Association Senior Amateur Championship at Farmington Country Club.

Decker, 53, and Gallagher, who will turn 55 on Saturday, won two matches each Thursday to advance to the scheduled 18-hole deciding encounter. Each player became eligible this year when the VSGA changed the age requirement for senior championships from 55 to 50.

Decker, the No. 2 seed, eliminated two-time champion Vinny Giles, 70, of Richmond in 19 holes in the quarterfinals and then sent John Long, 61, of Centreville packing 4 and 2 in the afternoon semifinals.

gallagherINSIDEGallagher (pictured right), the eighth seed, ousted stroke-play qualifying medalist David Partridge, 58, of Manakin 4 and 3 in the morning and 66-year-old Bill Engel of Alexandria 7 and 6 after lunch.

Engel earned his place in the semifinals with a 2 and 1 victory over Mark Rallas of Leesburg. Long, meanwhile, defeated Billy Jahn of Virginia Beach 3 and 2 in the round of eight.

Decker is the better known of the finalists. He has won 20 VSGA championships, including the VSGA Senior Stroke Play earlier this year and the 2010 Senior Open of Virginia. Gallagher has made a mark on the Virginia scene in recent years and is the reigning VSGA Senior Four-Ball champion with Jim Nirich.

Gallagher spent 28 years in the Air Force, retiring as a colonel in April 2008. During that stint, he served the United States in both Gulf wars and on some of the most dangerous stages around the world; Afghanistan, Bosnia, Grenada, Iraq and Somalia are counted among his tours of duty.

“A lot people don’t who he is,” said Decker of his opponent and dinner companion each night of the event. “He’s a veteran. You know he can’t tell you everything he’s done in the military, but he’s a bona fide hero.”

Gallagher also is a grinder who is feeling more comfortable each day on Farmington’s hilly 6,297-yard, par-70 layout on which Decker has won six Kenridge Invitational titles.

“It’s hard to step back and look at your game sometimes, but I think when I get in that grinding mode, I’m fairly good at it,” Gallagher said. “There are a lot of subtleties on these greens and you have to educate yourself so you understand where the ball is going to break and where to leave your approach shots.”

Gallagher and Partridge were all square through 10 holes. Gallagher won No. 11 and Nos. 13-15, the last two with birdies. He also birdied the last two holes in his round-of-16 match with Tom Grady.

Against Engel, Gallagher lost the second hole then won eight of the next 10.

“The key to the championship match is going to be fairways, greens and putts. You can’t play this golf course from the rough,” Gallagher said. “You have to keep it in play, get your ball on the green and give yourself opportunities.”

The first head-to-head meeting in match play between Decker and Giles, the two most accomplished lifetime amateurs in Virginia golf history, was as competitive as expected. There wasn’t much joking around.

Giles gained an early two holes up lead while Decker, who won each of his first two matches 7 and 6, worked to find a rhythm.

“I haven’t been nervous on a golf course in a long time, and I was a little nervous teeing off this morning. I don’t know why,” Decker said. “Maybe it was because I hadn’t played Vinny before, and we both wanted to win that match.”

Decker won No. 8 with a birdie to trim the deficit to one hole. They halved No. 10 with bogeys and Nos. 11 and 12 with pars. Decker’s length paid off at No. 13 where he drove the green on the 288-yard, uphill hole. The ball finished 12 feet from the flagstick, and Decker two-putted for birdie to square the match.

Decker moved in front for the first time with a 3-foot birdie putt at the 14th but gave the hole back with a bogey at No. 15. Giles regained the lead with a five-foot birdie putt on the 16th. After a halve on No. 17, Decker’s length again played a major role. Giles’ second shot on the severely uphill 18th landed short of the putting surface and rolled back 20 yards. Decker’s tee shot came to rest through the green, but he was far enough up to play a lofted iron and hit his second shot 12 feet from the hole.

Giles chunked the pitch shot and eventually conceded to send the match back to No. 1. Decker tee shot found the fairway, but Giles failed to get his trademark draw and drove into a fairway bunker. He mis-hit his second shot. Decker hit his approach shot to 25 feet and rolled the birdie putt to a foot for a conceded par. Giles missed his 8-footer for par.

“I hated that it finished that way for him, but I got over it real fast,” Decker said.

A victory in the final would give Decker the Stroke Play/Senior Amateur double that was accomplished most recently by central Virginians Tim Kelley of Ashland (2012) and Glenn Mullian of Richmond (2010).

“I would like to double up like some guys have. I wasn’t thinking about that coming in. I was just thinking about winning and playing as good as I can,” Decker said. “I’ve hit the ball pretty well. I’ve hit some awful shots, but I’ve putted pretty well. It’s gone OK for me this week.”

In the quarterfinals, Engel was dormie-four, but Rallas rallied to win the next two holes. They halved No. 17 to end the match.

Long was two holes up after four holes and never relinquished the lead. He won the 14th with a bogey and the 15th with a par to go 3 up with three to play. The match ended with both making par at No. 16.

Arthur Utley, a longtime sports reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, is writing at this week’s VSGA Senior Amateur Championship.

CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Results from the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds of match play at the 66th VSGA Senior Amateur Championship at Farmington Country Club (6,297 yards, par 35-35—70) on Thursday, Aug. 29 (stroke-play qualifying score indicated).

Results from the quarterfinal round of match play

(8) Col. James Gallagher (Ret.) (Yorktown), 145 def. (1) David Partridge (Manakin), 139, 4 and 3
(12) Bill Engel (Alexandria), 147 def. (29) Mark Rallas (Leesburg), 151, 2 and 1
(2) Keith Decker (Martinsville), 142 def. (7) Vinny Giles (Richmond), 145, 19 holes
(22) John Long (Centreville), 150 def. (14) Billy Jahn (Virginia Beach), 148, 3 and 2

Results from the semifinal round of match play

(8) Col. James Gallagher (Ret.) (Yorktown), 145 def. (12) Bill Engel (Alexandria), 147, 7 and 6
(2) Keith Decker (Martinsville), 142 def. (22) John Long (Centreville), 150, 4 and 2 

CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Pairing and starting time for the final round of match play at the 66th VSGA Senior Amateur Championship at Farmington Country Club (6,297 yards, par 35-35—70) on Friday, Aug. 30 (stroke-play qualifying score indicated).

ALL TIMES EDT

Friday (Aug. 30), hole No. 1

8 a.m.: (8) Col. James Gallagher (Ret.) (Yorktown), 145 vs. (2) Keith Decker (Martinsville), 142