The last time the New Hampshire Golf Association Amateur Championship was held at Nashua Country Club, Jim Cilley won the tournament for the first and only time in his career.
While the Belmont resident and Beaver Meadow Golf Club member can draw confidence from his 2011 victory, Cilley said he needs to avoid walking down memory lane when the 117th edition of the tournament begins this week at 6,400-yard, par-71 course.
“You can pull on those experiences but it’s a different tournament, a different year and different players,” Cilley said.
The six-day tournament starts Monday and will be the first played in a world pandemic. The NHGA’s COVID-19 protocols include players arriving no earlier than 15 minutes before their tee time, keeping a six-foot distance between themselves and other players and leaving once they finish playing and reading their scorecard to an NHGA staff member. Spectators must follow the same social distancing requirements as the players.
Unlike previous NHGA tournaments this season, caddies will be allowed at the State Am.
The tourney will open with 36 holes of stroke play qualifying, which will determine the 64 golfers who will advance to match play. The championship will conclude with a 36-hole final match on Saturday.
Cilley, 39, is one of 10 former State Am champions in this year’s field who have won the tournament a combined 22 times since 1977. Cilley, three-time State Am champion and Nashua CC member Phil Pleat (1997) and Concord CC member Bob Mielcarz (1979) have all won the tournament at Nashua CC.
Pleat’s son, James, and Tommy Ethier, who are both Nashua CC members, 2018 State Am runner-up Pat Pelletier (Carter CC), 2018 NHGA Junior Champion and 2017 NHIAA Division II boys’ golf champion Sam Barton (Kingswood Golf Club) and William Huang (Golf Club of New England) are among the other notables in the tournament. Huang, who tied the course record at Rochester CC (63) in his qualifying round, is currently ranked 41st among boys in the American Junior Golf Association. He is a senior-to-be at Phillips Exeter Academy and is committed to play at Stanford University.
“Honestly, here’s what I would tell you: Look for new, young faces,” said Portsmouth CC member and Greenland resident Craig Steckowych, who won the 1998 State Am at Derryfield CC. “I know a lot are coming up and playing well. I just think there’s probably a good two dozen or more players that are certainly capable of winning it.”
John DeVito, who is from Nashua, said one of the reasons he won last year’s State Am at Portsmouth CC was because his older brother, Chris, caddied for him most of that week.
“It’s nice to have someone to talk to between shots that’s not a playing competitor that’s really in your corner,” DeVito said.
DeVito worked at Nashua CC for a few summers beginning around 2012. The 30-year-old Passaconaway CC of Litchfield member said the course’s most challenging holes are Nos. 6, 8, 13 and 14, which are all par-3s.
“Other than probably the par-3 over the water (hole No. 13), all the par-3s other than that can play over 200 yards,” said DeVito, who won the NHGA Players’ Invitational at Baker Hill GC in Newbury last month. “Also, the 14th hole is a real beast at about 230 yards. Even if you par, you’re probably gaining a stroke on the field just making three.”
Phil Pleat, 64, said the par-4 hole No. 18 could also present challenges, especially in match play.
“The last hole, (No.) 18, could be interesting,” he said. “You have out of bounds left and trees right. If some matches come down to 18, it could be a very interesting finishing hole.”
Cilley echoed DeVito’s sentiments on the par-3 holes and said it is important to putt and hit wedges well on the Wayne Stiles-designed course that opened in 1916. “There’s less a premium on being a bomber and more a premium on a quality iron and wedge player and putter,” Cilley said. “It’s that traditional-style golf course.”
DeVito said he does not feel any added pressure being the tournament’s defending champion.
“I think, if anything, it just makes me more confident going in that I finally won the New Hampshire Amateur,” said DeVito, who will compete in the tournament for the 11th time. “It’s always going to be a battle, especially in match play, but I’m feeling good.”
Cilley returned to Beaver Meadow GC this year partially to prepare for the State Am, citing that the two courses share many similarities. He has reached the State Am semifinals three times since winning it in 2011 and is aiming to make another lasting memory at Nashua CC this week.
“I just want to get to that point where I feel like yet again, I’m one of the top guys out there, guys feel it when you’re around,” Cilley said. “When they see my name, I want them to be scared, especially late in the tournament.”
Cilley, DeVito and Steckowych, 61, said that six straight days of golf can be a grind but each is looking forward to being tired this week.
“If you end up getting toward the end of the week, it’s tiring but boy it’s fun if you’re there,” Steckowych said.