Brattleboro’s Shawn Baker did some amazing things as a Vermont amateur golfer and the absolute best happened at Rutland Country Club 30 years ago this month.
If you were there that day, you saw Baker rushing off the 72nd hole and shouldering his way through a crowd of ecstatic well-wishers to reach refuge in the clubhouse.
The emotional Baker later told a reporter that he didn’t want spectators to see him cry; he’d just become the first Vermonter to win the New England Amateur.
Drake Hull and a strong Vermont contingent aim at that very goal the week after next at Quechee’s Highlands course.
Baker rode his familiar Zebra mallet-style putter to the New England title at Rutland, much in the same manner as Hull captured his third straight Vermont Am title there on Thursday. Neither the longest hitter or best ball-striker the Am has ever seen, Baker ranks among its all-time best with the putter. He had long stretches of magic on Rutland’s notoriously fast greens that week. When he needed a putt, he just made it, so consistently that onlookers were surprised when he missed.
Hull was the same way Thursday afternoon, and even in the morning when one bad swing cost him two shots. Still he posted 70 in the morning and a commanding 66 in the afternoon before a faithful following to win his third straight crown going away.
Hull, a superior ball striker and wedge player, made 6 of 7 par-saving putts from 12 feet and in on Thursday that would leave the average weekend golfer with knocking knees. That on top of his seven birdies.
But back to Baker.
He actually began his ascent to the 1989 N.E. title the previous week at Woodstock Country Club. After a first round where he putted poorly, his father, then-Brattleboro Country Club pro Owen Murphy, took him aside and told him that he was moving his head over the ball. Voila: Baker’s magic returned and he went on to win his fifth and final Vermont Am, the tournament record in the medal format.
While the focus at Rutland was on its talented members the following week in 1989, Baker teed off on the 10th hole in the first round and shot 5-under par 30. He attracted plenty of attention after that but basking in a spotlight was never his style.
He finished with a 5-under 65, one shy of Jody Larson’s competitive course record, and never trailed.
He had a five-shot lead with 36 to play and it looked locked up, given the way he was putting.
But Baker made a tactical error in his third round. He turned conservative and fired away at the center of every green and it left him with a 74. That opened the door for Vermont’s Hans Albertsson and Maine star Rodney Butcher, who at different points were breathing down Baker’s neck at just two shots back.
Then Baker went back to his original game plan and played an aggressive fourth round, making putt after putt after putt. As I recall, he missed just one tester in his final-round 70, and won by four. He was characteristically thoughtful and methodical, forging a pressure-packed masterpiece.
The fastest he moved that afternoon was his escape from the 72nd green with onlookers smiling, patting him on the back and cheering his historic achievement.
Now Hull seeks to follow Baker at Rutland, Albertsson at Woodbridge (just outside of New Haven, Connecticut) and Evan Russell at Green Mountain National, and has high hopes after a runner-up performance at the Highlands in the New England Open.
“I’m really comfortable on that course,” he said Thursday.
The Vermont contingent could be very strong at Quechee. Rutland’s Jared Nelson posted back-to-back sub-par rounds there for Siena College last season. Other exempt players include Rutland’s Garren Poirier, Logan Broyles and Frankie Sanborn, who joined Hull this week to give Rutland its sixth straight McCullough Cup crown. Gary Shover, of Orleans, Mike Walsh and Scott Rankin, of Vermont National, and Nelson Eaton, of Barre, are exempt and other possible contestants are former champion Bill Hadden, of Dorset, Aidan Melville, of the Country Club of Vermont, and Vermont National’s Harrison Thayer.
But all eyes will be on Hull, because he’s the tallest hog at Vermont’s trough and is striking the ball so well.
Barre’s Bryson Richards, who played 36 holes with Hull on Thursday, said Hull made just one mistake all day: an approach shot out of the rough on No. 4 that Hull buried in a tree line. He eventually took a double bogey.
Hull smiled and took a little poke at himself as he talked about that swing; he had a tree limb in his path so he tried to draw the ball out of the rough.
“I don’t draw the ball,” he said, “but I thought that I could do it.”
But there are plenty of shots that Hull does have in his bag, like the towering efforts over trees from the rough, on 2 on Tuesday morning and on 8 Thursday afternoon, to turn save situations into good birdie chances.
Hull said the swing changes he’s made this summer held up throughout the Am, evidenced by a rock-solid last round in which he hit almost every green. Those he missed were by about the length of a short putt.
Plus, this kid is putting lights-out with Quechee time approaching.
“That’s the one I really want,” Hull said of the New Englands.
With the way he’s playing he might very well get it.
Correction: In my haste at the end of a long Thursday I wrote that Hull won the Vermont Am by five shots. It was six.