New Hampshire’s finest amateur golfers took to Stonebridge Country Club in Goffstown this week for the 111th New Hampshire State Amateur Championships.
The golfers in the tournament, which started on Monday, are a mix of fearless youngsters and seasoned veterans. The final will be contested Saturday between Damon Salo, a Johnson and Wales University golfer from New Ipswich, and Joe Leavitt from the Atkinson Resort and Country Club, who won the tournament in 2012.
But a slight high school golfer who eschews golf carts in favor of his own two feet nearly made the final himself.
Hole number nine had been giving the players a tough time all day. The tension was palpable. With pressure etched in their faces, several players mumbled to themselves as their putts came close but didn’t fall. Others dropped their clubs in disgust.
But Matt Paradis, standing no more than 6 feet and weighing 138 pounds, strolled up the 9th fairway. With the Uncanoonuc Mountains as his backdrop, Paradis looked at ease, joking with his caddie, good friend Ethan Aube.
“My heart can’t take much more of this,” says Paradis’ father, Dan. For as calm as Matt is, his father is every bit as anxious. “I just got here from work. He’s hitting the ball well right now, but if he starts to play poorly I’m going back to the parking lot,” says Dan.
Dan and his wife Nanette have taken much of the week off to support their 18-year-old son, a 2014 graduate from Central High School in Manchester. Both parents are emotionally and physically invested in the tournament. The pair run ahead on each hole to keep their eyes trained on trouble spots in the event that Matt’s drive finds the deep rough or woods.
Lucky for them, Matt’s in the zone.
Round of 32
He drives fairway after fairway and after 11 holes is 5 up on Ryan Tombs from Manchester Country Club.
Tombs, an accomplished golfer in his own right, is a familiar foe. Last year Tombs knocked Paradis out in the Sweet 16. This year though, Paradis seemed determined to exact revenge.
Down 5 holes, Tombs began to make a little noise on the 12th. Smashing his drive 320 yards, Tombs chipped in close but missed his birdie putt, allowing Paradis to maintain his lead. The 13th brought a similar tale with both players making mid-range birdie puts to halve the hole.
Pushed to the brink of elimination, Tombs needed to win the par three 14th hole to continue the match. Finding the bunker off the tee, Tombs spun his second shot to within a foot of the pin. Paradis had the ultimate response though, chipping in from thirty feet for birdie, thus ending the match and sending him to the Sweet 16.
“I can’t even focus. I’m so excited,” says Dan Paradis. “I’m going to go call my family.”
After an hour lunch break, Paradis went back to work. This time, though, more family has arrived. Matt’s grandparents have come for the afternoon match, a showdown with Ryan Brogan of Nashua Country Club.
Don Vigneault, Matt’s grandfather, is the whole reason he started playing. He looks on, beaming from ear to ear, eagerly awaiting each shot. Matt’s father notes that without Don, Matt would never have found the sport.
“I’m an EMT and my wife’s a postal worker. We’re not your typical golfing family. I’m not a big golfer myself. But Matt, he’s a humble kid and he’s just worked so hard for this,” says Dan in hushed tones in between swings.
While Paradis has worked hard, he makes golf look easy. The only player left in the field that opts to play without a cart, Paradis meanders up and down each fairway with ease. As a spectator, it’s impossible to tell whether he is trailing by five or ahead by five. He remains in a state that can only be described as Zen.
Moving Through the Rounds
Paradis came out firing in the afternoon. On the 490 yard first hole he drilled a fairway wood 230 yards uphill, narrowly missing the subsequent eagle putt, and didn't miss a drive or approach shot all day. Taking a 4-hole lead into the back 9, Paradis won comfortably at 5 & 4 to punch a ticket to the final 8.
Heading into the quarterfinals Paradis had not lost a hole in his last 45 and had hit 43 of 45 greens. On Friday Paradis teed off amidst the morning dew. For the quarterfinal round, Paradis drew Mike Killam of Newport Country Club.
Paradis had to battle a few distractions early. After losing the first hole a pterodactyl-sized bird buzzed him during his tee shot. He wasn’t fazed. After lacing his drive down the middle of the fairway, he dropped his approach in close and carded a birdie.
This hole started a run of four straight wins over Killam. After struggling with his putter on Thursday, Paradis got his flat stick going, canning a number of mid-range putts. Just when it looked like Killam might pull one back at the ninth, Paradis stuck his approach to seven feet and drained a birdie.
Killam took the 533 yard tenth hole, but it was smooth sailing after that, as Paradis cruised to a 6 & 5 victory.
“When I grow up I want to be just like you,” jokes Paradis' uncle, known only as Uncle Bob, who is caddying for the day. Dan Paradis, noticeably emotional, gives his son a fist bump.
“One more till the Super Bowl kid, one more,” he says. But first, Paradis had a date with Damon Salo, who was a golf star at Mascenic high school before heading to Miami to golf for Johnson and Wales.
After a family lunch, Paradis heads to the putting green. Salo is there, but no words are spoken between the two. Paradis is as tense as he has been all week.
“I feel a little sick, I may throw up. I’ve been fighting back tears all week,” says Dan Paradis. Pride oozes from his every pore.
When the match starts, it’s evident that the script will be a little different this time. Salo, a dominant golfer on the New Hampshire scene, has pinpoint accuracy. After getting into some troubling bunkers, Paradis finds himself three down after 13.
But on 14, Paradis begins to mount a comeback. He fires his second shot on the 560 yard 14th to within three feet of the hole, tapping in for eagle. With four to play Paradis pulls to within two holes.
Down the final stretch though, his putting isn’t quite accurate enough. Paradis missed makeable birdie putts on holes 15-17, eventually losing the match at 2 and 1. Salo moves on to play Joe Leavitt in the final Saturday.
Plenty of Career Left
Despite the loss, Paradis was pleased with his performance.
"I couldn't have asked for more out of this week. This was by far the most exciting tournament I've played in. Damon just played a really solid match and didn't really miss a shot," he says.
Paradis will take next year off from school to play golf in Florida. He hopes to be on the Web.com Tour in the next few years and try his luck at being a professional golfer.
Despite the result, all in the family agreed that it was a week they will remember forever.