Donatoni deemed #GAPSrAm Supers Champion in playoff at Riverton
CINNAMINSON, N.J. — It’s his 40th golf hole played in two days’ time, and White Manor Country Club’s Don Donatoni is battling heat exhaustion. He’s deep into a sudden-death playoff for the Super-Senior title in the 48th Senior Amateur Championship, going shot-for-shot versus Saucon Valley Country Club’s Robin McCool, and the sweltering sun, for the coveted title.
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The reigning five-time Super-Senior Player of the Year steps up to his golf ball, takes a deep breath of concentration and strikes “the best wedge shot I’ve ever hit” at the ideal time. That pured pitching-wedge approach would lead to a Donatoni birdie on the fourth playoff hole at Riverton Country Club (par 71, 5,992 yards), which would defeat McCool for the Super-Senior hardware – Donatoni’s third in six tries.
“I realize this is one of the biggest Major championships of the season. I told myself that if I had any chance of redeeming myself from a slow start earlier this year that I needed to come out and win this Major title,” said Donatoni. “ I had to go low, and I had to win this thing. And that is exactly what I did.”
After carding identical rounds of even-par 71 on Tuesday, Donatoni and McCool again matched each other’s cards on Wednesday, this time with 1-under 70s. Playing in the last Supers group out alongside Lookaway Golf Club’s Michael Anton and McCool on a second-consecutive day of blistering heat, Donatoni eventually came out on top of the 40-player leaderboard.
The timeline is a complex one that began with a bang on Riverton’s opener (par 4, 339 yards). Donatoni gained an early edge over the field there with a flushed 8-iron approach that landed to tap-in distance.
“I loved that hole all week,” said Donatoni, whose score matched his age (70) for the 14th time. “That gave me a nice little boost to start the second day.”
Steady golf and an influx of pars arrived for Donatoni and McCool, while Anton, who carded a front-nine 43, struggled to find a groove. Donatoni would bring that mere one-stroke lead through the turn.
A three-putt McCool bogey on No. 12 (par 4, 374 yards), followed by Donatoni’s birdie bomb from 20 feet on No. 13 (par 4, 354 yards) seemed to give the future champ all the momentum he needed. On the 16th tee (par 3, 125 yards), Donatoni learned he held a three-stroke lead over McCool, as the rest of the Super-Senior field succumbed to over-par numbers. The showdown between the top two then virtually transitioned into impromptu match play.
On the par-5, 447-yard 17th hole, the title round’s turning point surfaced. Donatoni found the fairway there, followed by a layup to within wedge-striking distance. McCool’s poor drive to the right was saved by a knockdown 5-iron that also left him with just 80 yards in; the former came up short with his gap wedge approach, while the latter tossed a dart within five-feet of the flagstick. McCool’s birdie look hit nothing but the bottom of the cup, while Donatoni failed to get up-and-down, resulting in a monumental two-shot swing in McCool’s favor.
“That gave me some life. I was just trying to do whatever I could possibly do to get back in it,” said McCool, 67, of Center Valley, Pa.
That plan worked flawlessly. On No. 18 (par 4, 341 yards), both players drilled driver down the middle cut. Wedge approaches again became the game. McCool threw another perfect wedge to within five-feet of the cup. Donatoni’s gap wedge flied over the flagstick and came to rest 25 feet past, leading to a long look that spun off the right lip. McCool stepped up and drained his playoff-forcing birdie. Free golf came next.
“Looking back on it, that was a fun little stretch of golf for me,” said McCool.
“Although I knew it shouldn’t have gotten to that point as I gave away a few shots there, I made my four-foot comebacker for par with confidence. It was right in the center of the hole. That gave me a good feeling heading into extra holes,” said Donatoni, 70, of Malvern, Pa.
Heading back to the first tee, both players found the fairway off the tee, followed by the green in regulation. McCool converted an uphill two putt from the front of the green, while Donatoni “disappointingly” left his seven-foot birdie clincher inches short.
“I felt like that was my putt to have. I didn’t get it to fall. I really thought that would be my chance,” said Donatoni.
Two-putt pars arrived again on No. 2 (par 4, 373 yards). The next chapter of drama unfolded on the par-4, 379-yard 3rd, where McCool had his own chance to get into the winner’s circle. After Donatoni missed his 12-foot par putt, McCool’s three-foot sidewinder slid below the hole.
“Man, that was a tough one. It broke a full cup, and I didn’t want to send it past the hole and possibly three putt [to lose]. I thought it was a good putt, but it just missed,” said McCool.
“That gave me a second life,” said Donatoni. “Don’t give me a second life, because I knew that I could just bear down on the next one.”
The next hole would be the championship’s last. Donatoni’s drive rolled to the left-center cut of the short stuff, while McCool sent his tee shot over a right fairway bunker and into the rough. McCool, playing first, fired a 9-iron that nearly holed out on the fly. Instead, it landed six inches beyond the cup and rolled out to four feet.
Up next? The perfect wedge at the perfect time.
“I’m thinking, Robin is in for birdie from there. I need to step up and hit the best wedge shot I’ve ever hit right now,” said Donatoni.
From 118 yards, the champion drew a solid pitching wedge into the birdie zone, matching McCool’s approach nearly to the inch. Former GAP President Bob Morey, serving as the playoff’s official, picked up the flagstick and measured the two distances. Donatoni was deemed to be away, setting the stage for each player and their five-foot attempt.
“I told myself to stay steady, not to move my head, and get it to the ball. When I hit it, I looked up, and I saw it wobbling. But at the end, it took a final turn into the hole,” said Donatoni. “That was big, and put some pressure on Robin to make his.”
McCool’s turn came and went, as did his chance to win the championship. His five-foot putt leaned left all the way.
The mutual respect between two of the most accomplished Super-Seniors in the Philadelphia region was immediately on display. An embrace came next, followed by recognition of the 40 holes the two just endured together, which included wet towels draped over faces and countless water bottles consumed.
“What a fight. It really doesn’t get much better than that,” said Donatoni.
“Don is such a great competitor. I truly mean it when I’m out here playing with and against him – which I’ve done so many times – that he brings out the best of my game. It was a great battle,” said McCool.
With today’s victory, Donatoni now holds three Super-Senior wins in the Senior Amateur, including previous victories in 2013 at Huntingdon Valley Country Club, followed by a title in 2016 at his home club. It’s an event that is highlighted on his busy tournament schedule, year in and year out. This go around, in particular, it might have been highlighted with a few different shades of marker.
“This really does mean redemption for me. I started my season off very poorly (with a 13-over 84) in the Warner Cup. It was really disheartening for me, and a terrible way to start the season,” said Donatoni. “I was looking forward to getting here, and I’m honored to get another [Senior Amateur trophy.]”
All was not lost for McCool, a 15-time USGA competitor and former GAP Executive Committee member. With his Senior Amateur performance, McCool earned the Super-Senior Silver Cross Award – a season-long honor that factors in stroke-play scores from the Francis B. Warner Cup (Gross), Frank H. Chapman Memorial (Gross) and this week’s pair of rounds.
McCool won back-to-back Silver Cross Awards in 1990 and 1991. Today’s victory marks his second Silver Cross clinched at Riverton – a place that now holds a special place in his heart. The first came in an 18-hole playoff. On that day in 1990, McCool fired a 6-under 65 to better Blaise Giroso’s even-par 71.
“To have [won two here at Riverton], that’s pretty amazing to me,” said McCool. “When the Silver Cross was first created by the Association, that was something I decided I wanted to win more than anything. It’s a stroke-play championship, played over three different venues and a three-month span. There is much importance put into the Award, and if you can win it, your game is doing alright.”
Although Donatoni took today’s crown, McCool claimed the season-long honor. It was only fitting, in this GAP Super-Senior battle for the ages, that both competitors walked away with a piece of hardware to show for it.
Golf Association of Philadelphia