Drake Hull is preparing for the long haul, tweaking his golf swing to make it more efficient for his final season at the University of Connecticut. Hull is about three weeks into a process.
But he’ll have plenty of opportunity to test his progress before September, beginning with next week’s Vermont Amateur at his home Rutland Country Club.
A field of 99 players will tackle the impeccably manicured layout with its devilishly fast greens starting Tuesday, with the winner crowned following Thursday’s 36-hole finale.
The Am is one stop in a long summer for Hull, who already has several events under his belt since school was dismissed. He will also play at Rutland’s L.D. Pierce Invitational and the New England Amateur at The Quechee Club, where he’ll try to be the fourth Vermonter to win it. He finished second last year.
But first Hull sets his sights on becoming the first player to win three state titles since Trevor Murphy 2005-07 and just the second Rutland member overall.
That was seven-time winner Tom Pierce way back in 1938-40.
But history isn’t the biggest obstacle to Hull’s goals; it’s his club mates. Garren Poirier is a two-time Am runner-up with a history in big USGA events and Jared Nelson, who enjoyed a big freshman year at Siena, has been working his way up the leaderboard the last few seasons.
Hull, Nelson and Poirier are capable up putting up some low numbers, enough that a winning score as low as, or lower than, Hull’s 3-under par last year at the Country Club of Vermont is far from out of the question. Hull has gone as low as 63 several times at Rutland and Poirier has a 62, a shot shy of Jesse Larson’s (non-tournament) course record.
“It depends partly on how they set up the course,” Hull said of the possible winning score at the par-70, 6,200-yard track. “This can be a tough place to play. You can hit it good and shoot 72 or (struggle) and shoot 68.”
Rutlanders definitely have the advantage but even they are surprised from time to time on the fast greens they know so well.
“The greens are so different for people who don’t play here every day,” Hull said. “We (members) still have putts that baffle us.”
The potential to see a grouping with the likes of Hull, Poirier, Nelson and other strong members like Frankie Sanborn and Logan Broyles could attract a good following but it’s hardly all about Rutland members next week. The Country Club of Barre sends along former runner-up Eric Lajeunesse and up-and-comer Bryson Richards, a recent grad of U-32 who is on his way to the University of Rhode Island; he’s slotted to be the Rams’ No. 3 or 4 stick this fall.
Most of last year’s top 10 are back — 2016 champion Bryan Smith is a notable absence, as is 2018 runner-up Max Major, who has turned pro — and among that group is last year’s third-place finisher, Gary Shover. A fresh face and a threat is Pat Pelletier, a former pro at Lake Morey and a New Hampshire Am champion.
A lot of eyes will be on 31-year-old Lajeunesse for his success on this track in the Pierce. He is a Pierce champion, co-authored the tournament record qualifying score of 11-under 59 and typically performs well at RCC.
“I like my chances,” Lajeunesse said. “I’ve just played so many rounds there and I’ve done pretty well. It’s similar to Barre. It’s not long, it puts premium on fairways and the greens are quick. It’s a second-shot golf course. Just having the rounds from the Pierce definitely helps.”
Lajeunesse won Barre’s spring four-ball with Chris Antonez and will bring a game that’s “fairly sharp” to RCC.
“It’s going to be an exciting Am because there are so many good players and so many of them are from Rutland,” he said. “There’s probably 10 guys who have a good chance.”
Richards, who was third at Dorset two years ago in his best Am finish, is depending on hitting fairways with irons and going to his strength, which is his wedge play. That’s a critical factor for every man in the field because it’s imperative to stay below the hole at Rutland.
“I’d rather have a 10-foot putt below the hole than a 3-footer from above it,” said Poirier.
“I like where my game is at, especially at Rutland, where I don’t have to hit a lot of drivers,” Richards said. “With wedges I can control my distance so I won’t be in one of those silly spots on the greens.”
Richards is a first alternate after shooting a 67 in a recent U.S. Amateur qualifier, and has played a U.S. Open qualifier and in the Hornblower this season.
He made it sound like a sack of 67s or 68s will win at Rutland, where he once had seven birdies in a Big I qualifier.
“I think it’ll be a lot lower than last year,” he said. “I think the Rutland guys can shoot 2 or 3 under anytime.”
Nelson is of a more conservative mindset, giving the course its props for its small but tough demeanor.
“If it’s set up like the Pierce (very fast greens) I would say even to 3 or 4 under,” he said.
“I think the leaderboard is going to get separated to the top four or five guys and I think they’ll have a shootout.”
Nelson was named to the Division I Ping All-Regional team in May and followed that up by winning his first-round U.S. Open qualifier at Berkshire Hills.
“I feel now more than ever ready to win this,” he said. “In the past I thought I could. (College) has helped me a lot.”
Nelson was fourth last year but said could have benefited from more patience. Hull got out to a 4-shot lead in the first round with a 4-under 67 and some might have thought he was well on his way. But he sagged back and came into everybody’s sights before winning a head-to-head shootout with eventual runner-up Major by posting 69 in the final round.
“You’ve got to stay patient,” Nelson said, “because people do have a tendency to come back.”
Poirier, a player/member of the host Vermont Golf Association board of directors, is excited about having his course on display in this event. He’s also eager to put his best foot forward after being snake-bitten when he’s played well from wire to wire.
“It’s going to take just four solid rounds,” said Poirier, 38. “Over the years there have been times where I’ve had three good ones and one bad and there are times where I just ran into a buzz saw, like Brian Albertazzi at Kwiniaska (2009) and Mike Stackus at Green Mountain National (2012).
“Everybody’s playing well right now,” he said of the Rutland members. “(The scoring) is probably not going to be crazy out of control. It’s going to be a tough test and definitely people who know the course better will prevail.
“I can see one low round but also a day where you shoot over par. Certain days will be easier than others. I’m excited to get going.”
NOTES: Rutland will be the favorite as it pursues its sixth straight McCullough Cup team title, a competition staged over the first 36 holes. ... Hull and Nelson will defend their Pierce title in August and have some new and high-powered competition standing in the way: Poirier, who missed last year’s event, will have Bryan Smith as his partner while Lajeunesse, who went to the finals with Shover in 2018, will bring along first-timer Richards. … Poirier is the reigning Vermont Mid-Amateur champion and Shover the sitting Senior Am champ.