Tense times on the links

Erickson wins Hop Brook championship on final hole

Mike Erickson pitches onto the first green during the Hop Brook Golf Course Men’s Club Championship final Sunday versus Todd Gronau in Naugatuck. Erickson won the championship. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

Mike Erickson pitches onto the first green during the Hop Brook Golf Course Men’s Club Championship final Sunday versus Todd Gronau in Naugatuck. Erickson won the championship. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

NAUGATUCK — The 2016 Hop Brook Men’s Golf Championship had all the drama of a true classic. The favorite jumped out to a big lead, the competitor made a valiant comeback, and it all came down to a remarkable final swing on a birdie putt to win the title.

Mike Erickson outlasted Todd Gronau Sunday to win the championship in a match that will go down as one of the best ever played on the Hop Brook links.

On the 36th and final hole some 15 to 20 fans stood on the hill to take in the exciting finish.

“That’s something I’ve always wanted to see,” Hop Brook golf pro Bob Clark said. “Having some fans lined up like that shows you just how exciting this finish was. Both players played like champions. This tournament was one of the biggest enjoyments I’ve had since I’ve been here at Hop Brook.”

Trailing by six strokes to Erickson with 11 holes to go in match play, Gronau put on a charge that whittled the lead down to one stoke with two holes to go. The late push began on the 25th hole of the round at the seventh green when Gronau, who went 1 up to beat Rich Brenia in the semifinal, sank a 45-foot birdie.

Erickson needed to make something happen.

On the final hole Gronau ran his shot through the green. Erickson, in dramatic fashion, sent a downhill putt dead center of the cup to win the 2016 championship.

“It was more of a sigh of relief than elation at that moment,” Erickson explained. “Todd played incredible and was a tough challenge. Once he started to lift his shots in the air and they were splitting the fairway I knew I was in for a battle.”

Erickson, who defeated Chris Sokolowski 5-4 in the semifinals, may have had a slight advantage in the tournament. His parents, Larry and Carla, own Jesse Camille’s Restaurant at the course and Erickson grew up playing at Hop Brook.

A perceived advantage couldn’t be further from the truth, according to the former All-NVL and All-State golfer at Woodland and current Post University linkster.

“Actually being the favorite might have added a little bit of pressure,” said Erickson, who jumped out to a five-stroke lead after the first 18 holes.

Erickson staked his claim to favorite status early on with a record-tying round of 67 in the qualifier that got everyone’s attention.

“People tend to have good days once in a while. I just happened to have one of those days,” said Erickson modestly about his record-tying round.

 

Gronau, a 2002 champion and one of last year’s semifinalist, wasn’t too far off the pace with a 73 in his qualifying round.

Todd Gronau pitches onto the third green during the Hop Brook Golf Course Men’s Club Championship final Sunday versus Mike Erickson in Naugatuck. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

Todd Gronau pitches onto the third green during the Hop Brook Golf Course Men’s Club Championship final Sunday versus Mike Erickson in Naugatuck. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

Gronau made Erickson earn the title on Sunday, especially after he found his range and started driving the ball high and straight down the fairways.

“I will admit being the favorite got me thinking I don’t want to lose this instead of going out wanting to win it,” Erickson said. “But to win this championship on a course I grew up at is such a special feeling.”

In the second flight, John Cerreta defeated Steve Slekis and Larry Testone got by Bill Brown in the semifinals. In the final, Cerreta won the title over Testone.

The first flight semifinal will play out this coming Sunday.

The women’s championship came down to a head-to-head battle between Stephanie Slekis and Linda Low after last year’s champion Nancy Clark was forced to withdraw due to an illness.

Slekis, the 2014 champion and 2015 runner-up, was on her game and beat Low, a semifinalist last year, in an 18-hole final round to win her second Hop Brook title.

Hop Brook will turn over the links to the junior players next week. On Aug. 11, the course will host an 18-hole division tournament and a nine-hole division tournament. The winner of the 18-hole tournament will represent Hop Brook at the Jack Kelly Connecticut PGA Tournament of Champions at Shennecossett Golf Club in Groton over Labor Day weekend.

“Next week is all about the junior golfers,” Clark said.

There is a $15 entry fee for the junior tournaments, which includes the awards ceremonies. Anyone interested in signing up can call 203-729-8013 or email Clark at robertclarkjr@pga.com.