All week during the New York State Open at Bethpage Black, there were echoes of the PGA Championship on the same course two months earlier. At the end, though, it was the British Open that played the biggest part in this local major.
Mike Ballo said, right after beating Rob Labritz in a playoff on the 18th hole, it was a call Wednesday from former St. John’s teammate Keegan Bradley that made the difference. Just before Bradley went to sleep in Northern Ireland, preparing for the first round Thursday at Royal Portrush, the major champion spoke with his buddy on the phone and told him “Fifteen seconds.”
“He meant you’ve got to be great for 15 seconds every time you grab a club, and everything you feel in between is just going to happen,” Ballo said, adding that he concentrated on that advice when he had a 164-yard 9-iron shot from a thick lie on the playoff hole, and two strokes later when he had a four-foot par putt to win. “My heart was beating out of my chest right there.”
Ballo’s heart has been in golf all of his life. He is an assistant pro at Winged Foot, site of next year’s U.S. Open. His brother, Peter, is an assistant pro in Connecticut and was in the field, too, finishing fourth. Their dad, Mike Sr., is a longtime club pro in Connecticut.
Never did younger Mike have a day as rewarding as Thursday, when he shot 2-under-par 69, tied with Labritz at 4 under for the tournament, two-putted from 45 feet for par on the playoff hole and earned a check for $17,500.
“This is the biggest tournament I’ve ever won,” he said. “You mark this down on the calendar every year. At one point I think I was five back. This course is the best test of golf in the world and I knew I just had to keep going.”
Labritz, a three-time State Open champ, had a four-foot putt to win in regulation, having saved par with a seven-footer on 16 and gone ahead with a 10-foot birdie on 17. The 18th green had special meaning for him because in May he stood there alongside PGA champion Brooks Koepka, receiving the trophy for being low club pro. It was one last great proud moment for his mom, who died July 4th.
“She kind of got in my brain on that last putt. It shows what a lack of focus can take away,” he said. “But it was a great week out here. I’m happy for Mike, he played great.”
The title meant another international call to Bradley, the 2011 PGA winner. “We’re very close, we played two years together. I was in his wedding. He keeps tabs on me,” Ballo said. “I don’t want to give him too much credit, but the conversation I had with him last night was a big part of today.”