WATERTOWN — From the time he first played in the Connecticut Junior Amateur at the age of 11, Ben James has been part of the conversation. He was, after all, the 11-year-old who was “offered” by UConn 5 years ago.
Though he couldn’t reach some of the Watertown Golf Club par 4s in two back then, he made match play (as the 32nd seed) that year and every year he’s played since.
More recently James has made match play in the U.S. Junior Amateur. He’s represented the victorious CSGA side at the New England Invitational matches and medaled. He’s won AJGA events, the latest his 13-under performance at Killington just last week. He’s ranked in the top five of his graduating class nationally.
Thursday he’ll play for his first CSGA championship.
James will meet the 2019 Junior’s hottest player, Gunnar Granito of New Canaan, in the finals. Granito, who took out Chris Fosdick, the No. 1 seed and Matt Doyle, last year’s runner-up yesterday, cruised to a 9 and 8 victory over John Guerrera in the morning and then held off Avon’s Michael Hanratty in an afternoon match that went all 18, 2 up. James reversed that pattern, battling to the final hole against No. 30 seed Kevin Lynch to a 2 up victory in the morning, then coasted to a 7 and 6 win over Kyle St. Pierre in the afternoon.
“In the past I’ve had trouble,” said James, the 6-1, 16-year-old who plays out of Great River. “Match play wasn’t my thing. I struggled here. But I think what has improved is my stamina. Thirty-six holes in the heat is a lot. I’ve been going to the gym making sure I have the strength to walk. I think that’s the hardest thing in the afternoon matches.”
James no longer is the scrawny kid he who first competed at Watertown. After a growth spurt that may still not be over and a new fondness for the gym, he looks more like an NBA point guard, with legs like step ladders and football safety’s upper torso. He’s also done a great deal of work on his golf swing, with father Don and acclaimed teacher Todd Anderson at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass in Jacksonville.
“I’ve got my club speed up a lot,” said James. “I’m working at getting faster clubhead speed and that translates to faster ball speed. I think I’ve probably gained 20-30 yards this year.”
That still may leave him a bit shy of the massively long Granito, 18, who has a driver he broke last month and is killing it.
His is the inside-out of that story. In his three previous trips to Watertown, Granito, whose first sport is hockey, has never made match play.
“Golf’s been kind of a struggle throughout high school, it’s been up and down,” he said yesterday. “In hockey I had a little bit more control over my talent and whatnot. With golf I could practice eight hours a day and it just wouldn’t come.”
But in June he won the FCIAC individual championship at Fairchild Wheeler and now he’s not only made it to matches, but advanced to the finals against a field that CSGA Executive Director Mike Moraghan called “maybe the strongest we’ve ever had in the Junior.”
Granito’s solution? He began to play golf more the way he plays hockey, instinctively.
“I just stopped practicing,” he laughed. “I didn’t practice during the season and I don’t hit balls before a round. I just putt and stretch. A little unorthodox but it’s been working well for me. When I go to the range I see a lot of different shots, and kind of get torn, do I want to stick with that ball flight or the one I’d planned.” Granito, who will attend Berkshire School in Massachusetts next year to hone both hockey and golf skills, acknowledges that just making the finals will draw more attention from college coaches. What those coaches will see is someone who plays golf as if on ice. He walks fast. He makes decisions fast. He plays fast. And for how far he hits it—no par 5 is out of reach in two and several par 4s are usually reachable—he’s remarkably straight.
What the two finalists share, though, is a commitment to the basic “hit fairways and greens.”
“Then one putt or two putts,” says James. Granito has had a lot of one-putts, especially at the start of his matches. He began his morning match with three birdies in the first five holes and birdied the first three holes of his afternoon match against Hanratty.
James, who made seven birdies and shot even par in qualifying stroke play, has made plenty of birdies as well, but has struggled a bit with his chipping. Yesterday morning he and Lynch both struggled with the green speed. In his first six holes in the morning James three putted twice and missed a 4-footer for birdie. Lynch missed short putts as well.
“I got the speed much better in the afternoon,” James said. “Maybe I just woke up, I don’t know.” He also got a chipping tip from his father after the morning round and that seemed to improve things in the afternoon.
Both finalists said Watertown’s greens were running considerably faster today than they had during qualifying or even during yesterday’s matches, with lag putts often running out to leave tricky come-backers. James got himself in trouble in the afternoon with a three-putt loss of the 14th hole and a failure to get up and down on the par-3 15th that shaved a 3-up lead to one. He made only two birdies in the morning, three in 12 holes in the afternoon. Granito made four against Guerrera, who struggled, and four against Hanratty, who fought back from 3 down after three holes to take the match to the 18th. “I didn’t feel any extra pressure being down early,” said Hanratty, who at 15 made the cut in last year’s Connecticut Open. “But every time I won a hole Gunnar came back and won one. I just couldn’t square it up.”
Hanratty gained the semi-final with a 6 and 4 win over Calvin Smith of Wee Burn CC in the morning. Smith, who made the round of 16 in this year’s Connecticut Amateur, got off to a slow start, fell 4 down on the front, and could not make it close.
Also in the morning St. Pierre, the son of 2002 Connecticut Open Champion Jim St. Pierre, won the battle of sons-of-golf professionals, defeating Tommy Rosati, son of Great River’s Head Professional Tom Rosati, 2 and 1.
The 18-hole final will begin at 8 a.m. The winner will receive the William Salvatore trophy, named after the Watertown native who won the championship three consecutive times in the 1950s. The Connecticut Junior Amateur Championship is open to all Connecticut junior golfers who have not reached their 19th birthday by the start of the event. Monday’s round of stroke play qualifying was followed by two rounds of match play each day, culminating in tomorrow’s 18-hole final.