Ballo Jr. leads Connecticut Open after one day in Darien
DARIEN -- Shooting an impressive 3-under-par 69 in the opening round of the 78th Connecticut Open Championship despite missing several putts was, as Mike Ballo Jr. said, "a good omen."
It could also be bad news for the rest of the field.
Consistently keeping the ball in the fairway at Wee Burn Country Club, Ballo Jr. was atop the leaderboard after Monday's first round and hopes to increase his slim advantage Tuesday.
"I can't be too disappointed with that score, I thought I played great," Ballo Jr. said. "I had a three-putt and I bogeyed two par-5's, which is unusual for me, but my distance was real good. I have given myself an opportunity to win a tournament."
Danny Balin, an assistant PGA Professional at Burning Tree Country Club in Greenwich, carded a 2-under-par 70, defending Connecticut Open champion Frank Bensel of Norwalk is two shots off the pace with a 1-under-par 71, while Dan Powers from Stamford carded an even par 72.
Ballo Jr., a former St. John's University star who represents Woodway Country Club, teed off on the 10th hole in the morning and promptly began his round with a birdie. The Trinity Catholic graduate also holed birdie putts on Nos. 17, 1, 2, 5, 7 and 10.
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"The keys are hitting the fairways and greens," Ballo said. "The course is wet and it's playing as long as it possibly can, and the rough is so thick. Making pars on a challenging course like this is good. I really didn't feel like I putted my best today, so that's a good omen."
Ballo, who turned pro in 2010, has been on a roll. He registered one of the biggest victories of his professional career recently, winning the Westchester Golf Association's 90th Open Championship on the first playoff hole.
"I've had a good summer so far, so I want to keep doing the things I've been doing well. I feel real good going into the next round."
Balin's game has also been in top form. The 30-year-old recently captured the New York State Open title at Bethpage State Park's famed Black Course with a 2-under 211 and earned a spot in the PGA Championship for the third consecutive year.
Starting his round on the 10th hole, Balin sank a birdie putt on the par-5 hole and was 2-under through nine holes. He also birdied the par-4 second hole and the par-3 seventh hole, putting him at 2-under.
"Shooting a 70 is a good start to the tournament, now I feel like I have chance to improve my score tomorrow," Balin said. "The course played a lot longer than expected due to the rain we had over the weekend, but I was able to hit a lot of fairways and greens."
Balin is primed to play in another PGA Championship.
"I feel great about how I've played the last three or four weeks," Balin said. "I've really been tested the past few weeks and I'm very excited to play in another Major."
Bensel, an assistant PGA Professional at Century Country Club, has a pair of Connecticut Open titles to his ledger, winning the tourney last year and in 2009. He finished Monday's round with three birdies.
"I thought the course was fabulous and it was very difficult," Bensel said. "The greens were running pretty fast and the rough was riding high, so you had to keep it in the fairways. Anything under par is good around here."
Like Balin, Bensel will compete in the PGA Championship.
"I'm looking forward to that and feel as though I'm prepared for it," Bensel said. "Playing in events like this where we walk the course gets my walking legs ready."
Andrew Gruss from Trumbull, Dustin Toner (Jupiter, Fla.), Jason Caron of Greenwich, Bobby Gage (Torrington), Tom McCarthy (New York), Sean Gaudette (Hadley, Mass.) and Jeffrey Hatten (Farmington) each shot a 1-over-par 73.
"I started out great out of the box with pars on the first four holes," Gruss said. "Then I had a couple of bogeys and things became a little difficult between the ears."
Gruss regrouped though, sinking birdie putts on Nos. 10, 17 and 18.
"It's not difficult to make bogeys on this course, but it's scoreable if you keep it out of the rough," Gruss said. "I feel good about my round, I just didn't execute a couple of shots. I could have shot a 70 or I could have shot a 76, so I'm happy with a 73."
Ryan Kalista, an Old Greenwich resident and pro at Innis Arden, birdied the first two holes en route to carding a 3-over 75.
"It could have been a spectacular round for me," Kalista said. "I thought I hit a lot of good shots, but a couple of holes were tough for me. This course is in spectacular condition. Every hole is a real good golf hole."
Peter Ballo, Mike's younger brother, is eager to improve upon his first-round score of 76.
"I've played this course enough to put up a good score, so hopefully I'll play well tomorrow," said Ballo, who will play golf at Sacred Heart in the fall. "I'm hitting the ball well, I just need to find my stroke on the putting green and drop a couple of more putts in."
Greenwich High graduate Tomas Agrest also intends to make a strong showing Tuesday after carding an 82.
"I don't expect to win at this point, but my goal is to shoot the lowest score possible," Agrest said. "I only got to play at Wee Burn once in high school, so to get another free round at this course is great."