LEBANON – In better-ball golf, there’s no proverbial ‘on-off switch’ to be flipped. But if a team can grind, stick to its game plan, be patient and catch a break, fortunes can turn on a dime.
And victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat.
On Saturday afternoon at the 6,562-yard, par-72 Lebanon Country Club, during the prestigious W.B. Sullivan tournament, locals John DiGiacomo and Mike Schmidt, Jr. scored one of the greatest comeback victories in the 69-year history of the event. Down three holes with three to play in their quarterfinal bout with defending champs Scott Mayne and Derek Price, DiGiacomo and Schmidt birdied the final three holes to force ‘overtime golf’, then won it on the 20th hole when Schmidt ‘stuck’ his second shot on the 507-yard, par-five second test.
The dramatic triumph propelled DiGiacomo and Schmidt into Sunday morning’s semifinal match in the championship flight, opposite Corey Wenger and Garrett Barbush, who shaded Perry Landis and Joshua Krumholz 3&2. The other semifinal will feature Lebanon Country Club member Brady Goodling and his Monmouth College teammate Kyle Deisher, who eliminated Lebanon County’s Andy Gibbons and Jimmy Gardner 3&2, taking on Patrick Sullivan and David Kimberley, who dismissed former Cedar Crest baseball standout Matt Knox and partner Randy Mull, 3&2.
The survivors will meet at 2 p.m. in the championship flight’s championship match.
“You’ve just got to believe,” said Schmidt. “I think as more putts didn’t go in the more dejected we became. But when that putt went in on 15, it was a spark. And it was all makeable stuff.
“It”s crazy. It’s surreal,” Schmidt continued. “When you’re a kid messing around on the putting green, you dream about the time when you’re down three with three to play and come back to win. That’s the cool thing about match play and this tournament. It gives you a chance to do that.”
That ‘spark’ that Schmidt so eloquently referred to came at the 523-yard, par-five 15th hole, when he dropped a 12-foot birdie putt on top of one that Mayne and Price had just drained to halve the hole and prolong the match. Then at the par-four 16th hole, DiGiacomo kept the momentum rolling when he nailed a 12-foot birdie putt to get his team to within two-down of the champs.
On the par-four 17th hole, it was Schmidt’s turn, as he rolled in a three-foot birdie, after flying the large trees that protect the green with his driver. On the par-four 18th, with ice in his veins, DiGiacomo drilled his side’s final gasp, a birdie putt from 12 feet away.
“I said to John on the 15th tee, ‘This match isn’t over,'” said Schmidt. “‘If we get to the 17th tee, we’ll win this.’ It was great. John was in it when he had to be. That putt on 18 was so clutch. It was awesome. Essentially, we didn’t make a bogey and didn’t make a birdie until 15, and then we made four in-a-row.
“John is so good at reading putts,” continued Schmidt. “He knows these greens so well. He keeps me relaxed and engaged. He’s so mellow. He’s fun to play with.”
After the sides halved the first overtime hole – the 382-yard, par-four first – Schmidt hit is second shot at the par-five fifth – a 200-yard five-iron – to within four feet of the flag. Struggling to come up with a par, Mayne and Price conceded the hole.
“My dad hurt his knee at the beginning of the year,” said Schmidt, who is playing with DiGiacomo for the first time in the Sullivan. “I sent some messages out to a bunch of folks looking for a partner. I said to Johnny, ‘Do you want to play in the Sullivan?’. He said, ‘yeah.’ We decided, ‘let’s do it.’
“Scott and Derek played solid all day,” added Schmidt. “Those two guys are so nice. After I celebrated, I legitimately felt bad. You don’t mind beating guys who are jerks. But the fact that they’re defending champs made it a little more special. There was a lot of local support out there.”
Mayne and Price made the turn three-up, thanks to Price birdies at numbers six and nine and Schmidt and DiGiacomo’s par at the par-five seventh. The match stayed that way through the fateful 15th hole.
“It (a Sullivan title) would be pretty big,” said Schmidt, who has multiple Lebanon County Amateur and Lebanon County better-ball championships on his resume. “It would be nice. It would mean a lot. It would mean a ton to me. This is the hardest one to win.
“That’s why you play,” Schmidt added. “You play in this event to play in match play. I’ve been on the outside looking in, wanting to be a part of it. You go watch other people and wish you were them.”
Goodling and Deisher eliminated Gardner and Gibbons in somewhat similar dramatic fashion, when Goodling flew his 85-yard approach shot into the cup at the par-four 16th for an eagle. Gardner had injected some life into the match a hole earlier, when he drained a 20-foot bender for birdie at the par-five 15th, to get he and Gibbons to within two-down.
Gardner got his team off on the right foot by nailing a 12-foot eagle putt on the par-five second hole. But Goodling and Deisher won the par-four fourth with a birdie, the par-five seventh with an eagle, the par-four eighth with a par and the par-three third with a birdie.
“There’s a little bit of local pride,” said Gardner, who along with Gibbons were the last Lebanon County duo to win the Sullivan, in 2012. “We get a lot of out-of-towners for this event. It’s a great thing that John and Schmidty are going to be in it (the semifinals). And with Brady and Kyle, at least we know we have two teams who are going to be in it.
“There’s no question playing in the championship flight makes it more fun,” continued Gardner. “You’ve pretty much got to shoot 68 to get in it. Even when you lose in match play it’s like, ‘Uhh, I’ve got to play in the Defeated 12s.’ It’s a letdown a little bit.”
Knox, a former professional baseball player in the Cleveland Indians’ organization and a former Lancaster Barnstormer, teamed with Mull to reach the championship flight for the first time in four tries. After dispensing Doug Hallman and Brad Goddard 2&1 in their morning opener, Knox and Mull fell behind Sullivan and Kimberly four holes, after losing five in a stretch of eight holes on the front – three with bogeys.
“This is the first time we’ve been in the championship flight,” said Knox, “and I was more nervous on the first tee than in any baseball game I ever played in. Hands down. No question.
Knox kept his side alive with a seven-foot birdie at the par-five tenth and a six-foot birdie at the par-four 13th. But Sullivan and Kimberley clinched the win when the teams halved the par-four 16th with pars.
“I got better at golf probably about three or four years ago, when I got a chance to take it more seriously,” said Knox, who walked away from professional baseball in 2006. “When I retired from baseball I needed something to take the competitive edge away. Golf does that for me.”
On Saturday morning, Gardner and Gibbons had edged Mike Turner and Andy Brightbill on the 19th hole. Schmidt and DiGiacomo opened their day with a 4&2 triumph over Tom Alestock and Rocky Dore.
Goodling and Deisher reached the quarterfinals with a one-up defeat of Jim Gardina and Craig LaBarbera.