By John Stewart
For more years than he cares to remember, Phil Fairbanks has been finding ways not to win the annual Maryland Amateur Stroke Play championship at Mount Pleasant Golf Course in Baltimore -- whether of his own doing or the work of another player.
As the 42nd edition unfolded over the weekend, it appeared that once again Fairbanks would get a high finish, just not the one he wanted. This all changed in a matter of minutes late on the back nine of the final round, and when it was over Fairbanks was the one left standing.
For the record, the scores were Fairbanks, 69-210; John Moheyer, 71-213, and defending champion Chris Baloga, 76-214. John Howson, 50, was the low Senior and his 72-2125 tied for fourth.
Baloga, who played with Fairbanks and Moheyer in the last group, had started the round with a three-shot lead on Fairbanks, four on Moheyer. Baloga promptly birdied the first hole, but those five strokes would be his biggest advantage. For two holes in the middle of the back nine, as the warriors went at it, shot for shot, the gap was just one.
The rise and fall of emotions was evident on the par-4 16th hole, where Baloga hit a wayward shot right that ended down by the 18th tee. Fairbanks, who had run off five successive pars to stay on Baloga's heels, went fairway-green and, eventually, a two-putt par. Baloga put his blind second shot over some trees to six feet and made the birdie putt. The margin was now two shots (-4 to -2) with two holes to play, and left Fairbanks thinking, "Here we go again."
At the par-3 17th, Baloga's tee shot landed on the hillside on the left in a bad lie. Finally, after several swipes, he was able to gouge the ball out, reach the green, and hole out for an eight. From the back of the green some 70 feet to a front hole location, Fairbanks two-putted for par. The two-shot deficit was now a three-shot lead. Fairbanks put icing on the cake with a last-hole birdie to finish at 3-under. Moheyer also birdied to get back to even (three 71's).
"I looked at the shot and thought I could get it out," Baloga said. Later, there was mention of the possibility of declaring the ball "unplayable," but it is easy to understand how one can get caught up in the moment, and simply focus on the task at hand -- getting the ball on the green
None of this should diminish Fairbanks' victory. He appeared to have the better ball-striking round, and admitted to missing a lot of chances, especially with his putter. He was however, proud of his two-putt at the 17th, where, ahead of time, he knew he had to have it to have a chance. For both players, it was a day-long challenge, back and forth, and when the opportunity presented itself, Fairbanks was right there.
Over the course of the last 20 years, Fairbanks, 39, an administrative teacher in the Howard County school system, can point to any number of close calls. In 1995, he shot 67-216 the last day, only to have Serge Hogg shoot 69-215. In a three-year span, 2004-06, his last rounds were 71-214 (third); 70-211 (fourth), and 72-212 (fifth). Not so long ago, all three totals would have been good enough for victories.
Posted July 6, 2009