Diminutive Kelley Wins Travis Invitational

By: Jay Flemma

A little guy's enormous heart and easy-going nature helped him fill some of the biggest shoes in golf history Sunday as Ohio native Mike Kelley won twice in match play to capture the 98th Walter J. Travis Invitational tournament. After defeating Kevin Hammer 2-up in the semifinals in the morning round, Kelley overcame a two-hole deficit early, then rallied after losing a two-hole lead late to edge Joe Saladino 2&1 in the final.

Wearing a "Garden City Green" golf shirt, the 5'5" Kelley hit "the shot of my life" on the par-4 16th hole, a 5-iron that finished six inches from the cup to recapture a lead he lost just two holes before. He then won the 17th with a 10-foot birdie putt, one of many clutch putts Kelley rolled in during the final round, while spectators cheered in amazement. His putting was so magical the patrons braved a drenching rainstorm that was as bad as during Friday's stroke play round. The streak of long one-putts was in stark contrast to the morning round against Hammer and the Saturday match-play rounds as well, where Kelley had to survive several misses on short putts.

"I didn't make anything in the morning and was chatting with Joe about that over lunch, but I knew I was making a good stroke and just kept committing to the line," Kelley explained. "I trusted they would fall and I just kept persevering."

The final was an epic seesaw battle, as great as any final in the 98-year history of the Travis Invitational - "The Grand Old Amateur." Saladino, who rallied after being down three holes after four to defeat Bethpage Black's David Segot, took a two-hole lead after two by carding a birdie at the first hole and a par at the second.

Nevertheless, Kelley's patience and trust in his flat stick paid off as putts began rolling in from everywhere. "I couldn't believe it, after he told me at lunch he wasn't putting well," said a smiling Saladino, who was gracious in defeat.

"A two-hole deficit is nothing on this course," said Kelley, who rallied from two down, then gave back a two-hole lead as the match progressed. "Although you're never comfortable with any lead out here, I felt more relaxed during the final than any other. Joe is a great guy to play with." He and Saladino not only met in the finals of the Anderson Memorial team event at Winged Foot and share the same affable nature, they even ordered the same lunch, a turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato, and chatted amiably before locking horns for the title.

"I just tried not to think about falling behind and execute one shot at a time," Kelley noted. The putts then fell like the deluge that drenched players and patrons alike. Back-to-back birdies on five and six erased Saladino's lead. Then a brilliant 20-foot putt saved a half on the eighth hole when a Kelley shot from a fairway bunker hit the lip and left him a tough 100-yard up and down to tie Saladino on the long and difficult par-4.

"I can't believe he's going to try it," said one spectator as Kelley took 5-wood out to extricate himself from the bunker. "It was borderline getting it over the lip," Kelley explained after the round. "But I knew if I hit the lip it would kill it, but it would be no worse than a lay up and that's what happened."

After the hair-raising up and down, Kelley made another long putt for birdie on nine to take a two-hole advantage to the back nine. But after a Saladino birdie on 12 and a Kelley bogey on 14 - his worst drive of the day went into the tangled jungle of rough to the left of the fairway, the match was square yet again.

"Sixteen was the critical hole," said Kelley pointedly. "The wind was right at us. I hit a good drive and thought 6-iron, but my caddie Rodney - who gave me great reads all day - said the only safe area to miss is the back, so why not try a soft 5-iron. The result was the shot of my life; I had a six-inch birdie putt." A second consecutive birdie on 17 later and Kelley hoisted the beautiful Waterford Crystal Trophy and replica of the Schenectady Putter Travis used to secure his fabled 1904 British Amateur Championship that are the spoils of victory. Kelley won the Grand Old Amateur, named after the Grand Old Man and held at The Grand Old Club on the 100th anniversary of Garden City G.C.'s hosting the US amateur.

Noble and sportsmanlike in defeat, Saladino also celebrated a great victory. On the eve of the final day, his marriage proposal was accepted by an ecstatic Sarah Gorman. "I went into last night hoping for a win, a win, and a yes. I may not have won, but Sarah gave me the greatest victory of my life," he said touchingly. "To be in the finals and give everyone a thrill and then to ride the emotion of Sarah saying yes was enough for me."

Andrew Giuliani won second flight. "With all the tough competition out here, just to be a part of this made it a special week," he said after accepting the trophy for winning the bracket named after Garden City golf course architect Devereux Emmet. "Between the membership being so kind to us and the golf course holding up under all kinds of conditions, and the greens being in such good condition - like tour greens - it's a special tournament. Being able to come through at a place with so much history means so much to me."

Kelley echoed the sentiments. "It hasn't sunk in yet, but I can't tell you how excited I am to be a part of the history of this great club. Garden City is everything a phenomenal club should be."

To show how deep the field is, the two semifinalists who were defeated by Kelley and Saladino - Segot and Hammer - battled each other in the fifth flight last year and they were semifinalists this year. "The course generates a lot of swings over the course of an 18-hole match," remarked one member. It tests your mettle.

Walter Travis once wrote, "Golf is something more than a game, it's a religion. It reveals a man to himself in all his pristine weakness and exposes to others weaknesses which he is ordinarily at great pains to conceal." But it was the ability to overcome those setbacks that is the heart of a champion. Indeed, over all the ups and downs that the par-73, 6,900-yard Devereux Emmet layout - which had bunkering and internal contouring by Travis and touch up work by RTJ and Tom Doak - the turmoil it can throw at you will show a man's character.

"He's a grand young man," said the member, smiling proudly and applauding Kelley. "Travis would be proud."

Indeed the entire membership of Garden City Golf Club echoed the sentiment. Loyal sons rejoicing the glory of Travis's name, the entire altruistic membership of the club truly understand how important it is to the soul of golf - a soul which requires virtues like respect, camaraderie, and selflessness - to protect and promote the game first.

Now Kelley belongs to the ages, and no matter how many years may pass, his name will be spoken with the same reverence as George Burns III, George Zehringer, David Egan, Walter Travis, and all the rest. The little guy filled big shoes and he'll walk in history forever.

The 2008 winners (seed and home club in parentheses):

Walter J. Travis Flight
Mike Kelley (6) (New Albany C.C.) over Joe Saladino (4) 2&1

2d Flight (Devereux Emmet)
Andrew Giuliani (7) (Trump National, Briarcliff) over Ed Gibstein (16) 6&5

3rd Flight (C.B. Macdonald)
David Hayes (6) (Wolferts Roost C.C.) over Dan Goldstein (4) 7&6

4th Flight (RTJ)
Bryan Pendrick (3) (Mill River Club) over Joe Taylor Jr. (8) 1 up

5th Flight (William Howard Taft)
Jamie Slonis (2) (Tavistock C.C.) over Ken Dardis (4) (20 holes)

Senior Legends (DDE)
Bob Lewis (7) (The Country Club, OH) over Gerard Garber (16) 1 up

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.