James Ambrose had just finished a magical comeback to earn a spot in the City Men’s Golf Championship semifinals. And all he could say was, “Whew! That was hard work.”
Two holes down to five-time champion John Bufalini with time running out, Ambrose parred the three tough closing holes Friday at Watertown Golf Club and claimed victory when Bufalini uncharacteristically finished bogey-bogey-bogey.
Ambrose, the 2009 champion who won medalist honors last Saturday, is joined by another pair of veterans and one relative newcomer in the final four.
Twelve-time winner Bob Hughes stayed alive to defend his title with a 4 and 2 victory over Pearce Parsons. Hughes will take on Michael Burgess, the lowest remaining seed at 20, who stayed hot by beating Alex Hahn 2 and 1.
Ambrose meets 1984 winner Tim Phillips, who outlasted Andrew Marks 1 up.
But it was the Ambrose-Bufalini battle that highlighted the day.
Bufalini led virtually the entire way, making easy birdies on the first two holes and then draining a 30-footer for birdie on No. 5 to claim an early 2 up lead.
Ambrose, ever steady, birdied No. 6 to trim the deficit before Bufalini went 2 up at the turn after winning eight with a par.
“I knew I couldn’t let him get too far ahead,” said Ambrose, the Jefferson Community College golf coach. “There weren’t a lot of birdies out there. But I knew pars would keep me in touch.”
Ambrose got a hole back when Bufalini had tree trouble twice on the 10th hole. But Ambrose gave that back with a bogey on No. 11.
The duo exchanged short birdies on 12 and 13 before they both parred 14, leaving Bufalini two up. That’s when the fireworks started.
Ambrose looked like he would gain a shot when Bufalini was stymied behind a tree on the 15th hole. But Bufalini pulled off an amazing second shot, somehow pitching his ball to within 15 feet and making par while Ambrose missed his birdie putt.
“I didn’t know if I had a shot or not,” Bufalini said. “There was just enough room right of the tree. I was more afraid about breaking my club.”
After halving that hole, Ambrose thought “like it might not be my day. But on this course, the last three holes are the most difficult and anything can happen.”
He was right.
Ambrose made a superb up-and-down for a par 3 on the 16th, while Bufalini missed a 10-footer for par.
On 17, Ambrose hammered a 3-wood from 195 yards to within 20 feet and won the hole when Bufalini failed to get up and down from left of the green.
Ambrose hit another sweet second shot, this time a 170-yard 6-iron to pin high on the deciding 18th hole, from where he easily two-putted for par.
Bufalini’s second from behind a willow tree rolled just over the green. He chipped to 10 feet and could not get the par putt to drop.
“You can’t finish like that against a player like James,” Bufalini said. “On 16, I thought I hit a good shot and it rolled just long. That one on 18 also ran a little further than I thought it would. My short game wasn’t as sharp as it needed to be today.”
Phillips was 3 up after five holes versus Marks, but had to hang on at the end.
A superb chip from just off the 18th green to six inches finally secured the win after Marks stayed alive by sinking two clutch putts on 16 and 17.
Hughes made 13 pars, including all seven on the back nine, to make it back to the semis. But he still wasn’t happy with his game.
“The irons were a little better today,” he said. “But I left so many putts just a little short. That’s frustrating.”
Burgess earned his first semifinal spot with a round he called “pretty awful. I did just enough good things to win.”
That included a clutch 10-foot par putt on 16 to gain the lead for good.
As for playing Hughes, Burgess said he was looking forward to it. “It will be tough, I’m sure,” he said. “But he’s still got to beat me, too.”