By STEVE WILLIAMS
If anybody in the Triad Golf Today Tournament of Champions field was waiting for Chris Cassetta to make a mistake in the final round, they are still waiting.
Cassetta, a 44-year-old lefty from High Point, began the final round on April 22 at Greensboro National with a three-shot lead and never took a step backward. He nearly holed his second shot on the par-4 first hole for a tap-in birdie and then reeled off 17 straight pars. His 73-71 effort produced a six-shot margin over defending champ Matt Nelson.
“I kept telling myself if I didn’t give any shots back, I would be hard to catch,” Cassetta said.
Nelson was also steady and birdies at the ninth and 12th kept him within range but he took a couple bogeys coming in to eliminate any chance of putting heat on the front-runner.
“My putting is just not there right now,” Nelson said. “I was trying to catch him but I didn’t have enough. He’s a good player, real solid. He was pretty much hitting every green.”
Tony Byerly, a former champ, had the T of C’s best score with a second-round 70 but he was too far off the pace after struggling with a soon-to-be-discarded putter that left him at the bottom of the 12-man field with an opening 84.
Mark Nieters also posted a red number on day two with a 71 and Matt Gdovin, club champ at the host course, matched par. But like Byerly, they started too far off the pace to make a dent.
The victory was a long time coming in the 22nd annual event where Cassetta has been on the verge several times before.
“I’m certainly glad to have done it,” he said. “I’ve played eight to 10 times and had many close calls.”
There were three seconds, two thirds and a fourth before this year’s breakthrough. A couple were especially memorable.
Back in 2002 he and Todd Chadwick were involved in the longest playoff in the tournament’s history. It went six holes and wasn’t decided until a day later after darkness stopped the playoff after five holes. Cassetta was looking good on the fourth extra hole, staring at a 20-foot birdie putt while Chadwick was buried in a greenside bunker. Somehow Chadwick escaped the trouble with a par and two holes and a day later, he claimed the victory.
Then in 2012 at Forest Oaks Country Club, Cassetta birdied the final two holes and had the clubhouse lead with one group still on the course. But little-known Ben Pinkleton rolled in a 35-foot downhill putt for an eagle on the par-5 18th to cap an incredible back-nine 30 that left Cassetta as a runner-up again.
But not this time. He became the 18th consecutive first-time winner of the tournament and the first left-hander.
His scorecard indicated some pretty uneventful two days of play in near-perfect weather as he had just two birdies and two bogeys to go along with 32 pars. But that wasn’t exactly the case.
“The end result was very similar, but the path in which it took to make all those pars was kind of different from Saturday to Sunday.”
The first 18 was full of scrambles and par saves after he got off to a slow start.
“I had bogeyed the second hole with a three-putt and then I knocked my tee shot in the water on the par-5, so I’m one over and taking a penalty shot and I’m not even through three holes.”
But he managed to get up and down for par from 60 yards on the par-5 third and followed with a series of saves. His only birdie came with a short putt at the par-4 ninth and he took his only other bogey at the par-3 16th.
“I made a lot of six- to eight-footers on the first day,” he said. “I was proud of the way I hung in there.
“The second day was the complete opposite. I had a lot of 12-to-20 footers (for birdie) throughout the day and I couldn’t make any of them.”
Nelson’s hope to make it a game was highlighted by a long birdie putt on the 12th while Cassetta was facing a difficult par-save.
“I had to make a four-footer for par so that could have been a two-shot swing there,” he said. “That was kind of the turning point where I gave only one shot back there.”
The tournament offered CGA ranking points for the first time in its history and Cassetta was a bit disappointed that he settled for second overall as Davis Womble, playing in the Interclub division, shot 70-68. The top five in the combined divisions were awarded points.
“My goal was to try to beat everybody in the field, including the Interclub guys,” he said. “I knew I was going to have to shoot a round under par to catch Davis.”
Cassetta has been part of two winning teams in the Interclub Challenge that is played alongside the T of C. He was on the 2001 Cardinal foursome and on the 2012 Tanglewood fivesome. He now plays out of High Point Country Club, where he was the 2017 club champion, his qualifier for the T of C.
The win capped a busy month for Cassetta. He was a key player for the CGA team that beat the Carolinas professionals in the Tar Heel Cup matches earlier in April. A week before the T of C, he notched a top-25 in the Carolinas Mid-Amateur Championship.
He plans to stay busy the rest of the year with CGA and national level tournaments, especially in the mid-amateur age group.
“I’ve been fortunate in the last five or six years to play in a lot of the team matches,” he said, noting the Carolinas vs. Virginias matches and the Tar Heel Cup. “Getting invited to play in those team events is always a goal. And hopefully, one day I can break through and win a CGA event.
“It’s great to win the Tournament of Champions,” he said. “I looked at the list of all the winners and I’ve competed against every one of them in a lot of tournaments. Many of them are close friends of mine so it’s pretty cool to win it.”