In a victory that was as improbable as it was thrilling, Island golf sensation Tony Grillo overcame a seven-stroke deficit in the early going and sank a dramatic birdie putt on the final hole of the final day to capture his second consecutive Massachusetts Junior Golf Championship title.
With the win at the Crumpin-Fox Golf Club in Bernardston, the 17-year-old rising senior at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School retains his title as the best junior golfer in the state.
Grillo showed his trademark poise through several rough patches during the three-day event, finishing with an even par 216. With the win, he becomes the first golfer to capture two straight junior championship titles in over 30 years.
Grillo took a markedly different path to victory than last year, when he won the junior championship by an eye-popping ten-stroke margin. This year, he fell behind by seven strokes on the first day after shooting a six-over-par 76 on Monday.
He then regrouped and shot a scalding four-under 68 on Tuesday to earn a spot at the top of the leader board, and shot an even par 72 on Wednesday to secure the win. He actually held a two-stroke lead over Josh Salah of Gloucester on the final day after birdieing the 15th, but uncharacteristically bogeyed on the 16th and 17th to make things interesting.
Going into the final hole on Wednesday Grillo knew he had to do something special.
"I kind of butchered the 16th and 17th holes, and I was kind of disappointed that I had put myself in that position. But I knew I was still in good shape if I could birdie the 18th [hole]," he said in a phone interview.
Grillo had a stellar drive off the tee and got to within eight feet of the pin on his approach. The lay of the green was a little tricky, he said, as it slanted left to right. But he said he had a good read of the green after watching other golfers take their putts.
"I actually missed a couple of short putts during the tournament, and [those misses] were definitely on my mind. But I felt I had a good read on that green and thankfully my shot was good," he said matter-of-factly.
Grillo's even-par round featured four birdies - on the 9th, 12th, 13th and 18th holes.
The path to victory was made more challenging this year by the strong play of Salah, the Gloucester High School junior who recently has been playing some of the best golf of his career. Just last week, Salah made Bass Rock Golf Club history by becoming the youngest golfer to win the club championship.
But Salah could not match Grillo's triumphant birdie on the final hole and finished second overall.
While Grillo said he was pleased with the come-from-behind victory, he concedes that he did not play his best golf.
"I was able to get up and down on a lot of holes to save par. But my drive was off at times and my short game got me into trouble. I did play well at times - but I wouldn't say I played out of my head," he said.
Grillo had little time to savor his championship, as he headed directly to the Ferncroft Country Club in Middleton Wednesday evening to compete in the U.S. Junior Amateur Championships. Grillo is hungry for a win in the event after missing the cut in a junior amateur event in Missouri earlier this year.
"I think I'm pretty focused, and I definitely want to win it," he said Wednesday afternoon via cell phone while driving to the amateur championships in Middleton. "I don't think I played my best in [the Massachusetts Junior Championship], but I hope that will change this weekend."