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Playoff pressure fails to deter Speirs in GBO victory

Michael C. York | BDN
Michael C. York | BDN
Bangor native Jessie Speirs gives his mom, Debi, a hug after winning the GBO in an extra 1-hole playoff round Saturday, July 23, 2011, at the Bangor Municipal Golf Course.
By Dave Barber, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — As Jesse Speirs strode to the 18th tee at Bangor Municipal Golf Course on Saturday, his mother Debi smiled and pretended to bite her nails.

She might have been more worried if she had known what Jesse did, that he was tied for the lead in the 45th Greater Bangor Open instead of being ahead by a stroke.

Two holes later, Debi Speirs could smile again after the 24-year-old Speirs defeated Mike Ballo of Stamford, Conn., in a playoff to claim his first victory as a pro.

Speirs, a Bangor native who now lives in Germantown, Tenn., rolled in a 1½-foot birdie putt on the first hole of the sudden-death playoff to collect the $9,000 first-place check.

Speirs, who was the 2002 runner-up as a 15-year-old amateur, posted a 2-under-par 67 Saturday for a three-day total of 7-under-par 200.

Ballo, playing several groups in front of second-round co-leader Speirs, earned his spot in the playoff by shooting the day’s best round, a 64.

Shawn Warren of Windham and Dustin Cone of Port St. Lucie, Fla., tied for third at 202 after Warren posted a 68 and Cone turned in a 67.

Rich Parker of Lebanon, N.H., second-round co-leader Taylor Stewart of Bonita Springs, Fla., and Rich Berberian Jr. of Derry, N.H., tied for fifth at 203. Parker shot 66, Stewart 70 and Berberian 69.

Low amateur went to Edward McQuiston of Amherst, Mass. He recorded a 69 and a 225 total to win by a stroke.

“I knew on the 17th green before I putted (that he only shared the lead),” said Speirs.

He usually tries to avoid seeing the leader boards because he prefers not to know where he stands.

“It can go either way” as far as helping or hurting, he pointed out. “I try to concentrate on the shot I have in front of me.”

Speirs, who was a member at Bangor growing up, drained a 30-foot birdie putt on the day’s second-most difficult hole — the 430-yard, par-4 12th — to initially take the lead, then parred out to set up the playoff.

Those holes included a few putts of several feet to save par on the back nine.

“I was having trouble with the speed,” he admitted. “I was a little short. Then on the back, I started to hit them a few feet by. I stayed calm, rolled them in (for par) and stayed patient.”

Speirs just missed making a left-to-right-breaking 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that would have immediately sealed the title.

“It lost its line and dove to the right (rolling past the front edge of the cup),” Speirs said.

Coincidentally, Ballo missed a 1½-foot putt on 18 that would have put pressure on Speirs to make a birdie over the closing holes.

In the playoff, which started and ended on No. 7, Speirs drew the right to tee off first, and he drilled it down the right side of the fairway approximately 340 yards, staying away from the dense woods on the left.

Ballo also went down the right side, but he was a little farther right and his ball banged into a tree. Fortunately for Ballo, when it dropped out, it ended up on the right edge of the fairway also, but about 90 yards behind Speirs’ ball.

Ballo’s approach shot rolled onto the back collar of the green, and Speirs then executed a wedge shot from 50 yards that hit close, turned to the right as it rolled and stopped 1½ feet from the cup.

“All week, I was hitting a lot of wedges and half wedges in from 50 to 100 yards. I was 50-50 on hitting them real good,” stated Speirs.

So after Friday’s round, he went to the driving range to practice, putting down towels at 50, 75 and 100 yards.

“It was nice to see the practice pay off,” he said.

After Ballo’s birdie try came up short, he tapped out and let Speirs have the spotlight.

“It’s nice to be back here with friends and family,” said Speirs, who thanked them all at the awards ceremony.

“This is great. I’ll have a couple of days of fun, then I’ll be right back at it,” continued Speirs. “You have to keep grinding.”

Speirs learned a little about grinding Saturday. Stewart and Berberian, playing in the last group with Speirs, both birdied the first two holes and pulled ahead of Speirs, who parred both.

Speirs birdied the third and fourth holes, including making a putt on 3 that hung on the edge before falling in.

“I honestly don’t know how that putt went in,” he said, but it was a key element for Speirs.

“That helped turn the momentum from them,” he said.

In 2002, Speirs bogeyed the final hole and lost by a stroke, but his only thoughts of that tournament Saturday were positive and aided him, also.

“I kept my composure better, which you should do as you get older,” he said.

Speirs won the 2002 and 2003 Paul Bunyan Amateur Golf Tournaments and 2009 Maine Amateur, but he has found success in pro golf requires even more of a player.

“Every shot does matter, especially in mini-tour events when there’s not a lot of money,” he said. “The $9,000 is nice, but you can’t (relax) because of it,” Speirs continued. “You try not to worry about money, but it can go fast.”

Speirs’ next tournament is a National Golf Association Hooters Tour event Aug. 1-7 in Hawkinsville, Ga. He expects that the GBO win can only help.

“It’s not every time you get to play in the last group. You learn a lot from this, especially when you win,” he said. “I’ll build on this experience.”

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