HOT SPRINGS, VA –– Duke's Brinson Paolini cemented his name and legend in commonwealth golf annals by scoring a 3 and 2 victory over Ji Soo Park, 20, in Saturday’s scheduled 36-hole final at the 100th Virginia State Golf Association Amateur Championship at The Homestead’s Cascades Course.
Competing in his last VSGA Amateur for the foreseeable future before turning professional later this summer, Paolini became the second golfer to collect four titles in six years; commonwealth golf legend Vinny Giles is the other, winning four of his record seven titles in 1966, 1968, 1969 and 1971. Paolini won an unprecedented three straight Amateurs from 2008-10. His four victories in the event are tied for the third-most of all-time with Billy Howell and Wynsol Spencer won five times.
Paolini has been the face of the VSGA Amateur as of late. In 2008, he became the youngest champion in seven decades and claimed three victories in the event before turning 20. Talk about exiting the stage in style—and doing so in the centennial year at the Cascades, where the Amateur has been conducted 40 times, more than any other course.
“To be able to win the centennial basically at the unofficial home of this event is very special, so I’m just very fortunate, blessed and happy,” said Paolini, a spring graduate of Duke University. “It may take a couple of days for this to sink in.
“The VSGA has meant so much to me in my development throughout the years not only as a player, but as a person. To be able to win the centennial event at The Homestead is incredible.”
Facing a two holes down deficit after lunch, Paolini hit the accelerator, playing the final 14 holes in four under par. A rising junior at the University of Virginia, Park, who rode a hot putter in the morning, took a 2-up lead by knocking in a 20-footer for birdie at the 20th hole of the day, the par-4 second.
Paolini responded in winning form by running off three consecutive birdies to take a lead he wouldn’t relinquish. He started the surge at the 21st hole, the par-4 third, where he struck a great drive that settled 15 feet to the right of the flagstick. Paolini proceeded to take the next two holes, sinking putts of 14 and 16 feet to turn the match around and move to a one-hole up advantage. With the win at the 23rd hole, the par-5 fifth, Paolini gained the upper hand in the match for the first time since the 11th hole in the morning session.
He’d recovered after Park continued his strong play after lunch and the surge started by driving the green at No. 2, which is reachable, but requires a precise shot. Paolini also had a quiet determination to forge ahead and not let Park work his late magic, which had allowed him to win three straight extra holes matches to reach the final.
“Really, the turning point in the match was when he made that putt at [No.] 2 in the afternoon and he really hadn’t made a mistake all day,” Paolini said “Then I stepped up and hit that drive to 15 feet and made the three birdies in a row. From there, I was just trying to hold on and keep the momentum on my side. I was trying to win holes, but I was also trying to keep pressure on [Park] because I knew what he’d done on the last few holes, so I had to try to keep the momentum on my side.”
Paolini seemingly had the pace on the Cascades’ undulating putting surfaces all week and showed his touch, draining a slippery downhill 6-footer at the 27th hole, the par-4 ninth, to go two holes up. Counting the concessions that are typically a part of match play, Paolini shot 3-under 31 on the outward half in the afternoon.
Paolini gained a match-high 3-up lead after Park tugged his tee shot left and short-sided himself at the 29th hole, the par-3 11th, leaving a chip shot from heavy grass that was impossible to stop and resulted in a bogey.
Park got within two at the 31st hole, the par-4 13th where he stuffed his second shot to 18 inches for a conceded birdie, accounting for his first win since the 20th hole. Paolini showed great touch two holes later at the 33rd hole, the par-3 15th. With his ball nearly nestled against where the fringe meets the second cut of rough and 40 feet from the hole, Paolini rolled the big-breaking putt to a few inches from the hole for a par-win to go dormie-3. Park’s tee shot came to rest in the left greenside bunker and he left his second shot in the sand.
Paolini made perhaps his last stroke at the VSGA Amateur at the 34th hole, the par-5 16th where he made a 4-footer for a birdie to win the match. The emotions would stay stored away no longer for Paolini. He tearfully embraced caddie Mac Thayer, who has been his looper at the Amateur since 2008, exchanged a congratulatory handshake with Park and hugs from his mother and father, as well as from a host of onlookers.
Park had a 1-up lead after the morning session. After shaking off some early nervousness, he played the final 11 holes in four under par, including draining a testing 16-foot left-to-right breaker at the par-3 18th that sent him to a 1-up lead at the break. After Paolini got rolling in the afternoon, Park’s putter went cold and could only watch as his opponent rallied.
“Brinson had those three birdies and that was big. I wasn’t swinging badly,” Park said. “It hurts. I didn’t play badly—he played a well. I didn’t give him a hole. He took the holes from me. There’s nothing you can do about that—he made birdies.
“He played a lot of good shots. He’s obviously a really good player and I knew he was going to stay strong all the way through and he did.”
Once Paolini retook the lead, he was on firm footing the rest of the way. He had a steely focus all week.
“I just wasn’t going to lose—and if I was, someone was going to have to really beat me,” Paolini said. “That’s what [caddie] Mac [Thayer] kept saying: If we’re going to go down, someone was going to have to play as good as anyone can play. I wasn’t going to give anyone anything. That was kind of my mantra all week: just keep fighting and never give up and I was just fortunate to come out on top.”
Even when he trailed, Paolini, the possessor of an enviable smooth and efficient motion with few moving parts, continued to strike solid shots and stayed strong mentally, a must in a match play setting. His name will again be engraved on the Schwarzschild Brothers Trophy alongside a host of other Virginia golf greats.
“I just kept telling myself to keep fighting. Match play is all about leverage. It’s all about the next hole and how you can put pressure on your opponent on the next hole no matter if you’re 6 up or 6 down,” Paolini said “You have to put pressure on your opponent. That’s all I tried to keep doing—no matter where I was, keep putting pressure on [Park], keep putting pressure on the golf course, keep the momentum on my side and I was fortunate that it worked out.”
Paolini will turn professional in the next couple of months. He has a believer in Thayer, his longtime caddie, friend and a mentor, who has known Paolini since his junior golf days.
“He can work the ball both ways. He’s a much better now than he ever has been before,” Thayer said. “He’s really worked hard on his short game so those are the elements that you really need to succeed on the PGA Tour. And he’s learned a lot about composure, too—that’s a lot of the formula you need to be successful out there.”
Paolini hopes his experience competing in VSGA events, especially the Amateur, will be an ally as he makes his next career move.
“It’s given me the belief and the confidence that I can compete and play at the highest level,” Paolini said. “I’m hoping to be able to take the mindset that I had here all week and apply it to my future. If I can do that, hopefully, I’ll have some good things happen.”
Courtesy Virginia State Golf Association Communications