Keene, N.H. – You could say that Chelso Barrett’s road to the championship match of the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship began more than two decades before he was born, on a winter night in the late 1960s when his family’s livelihood seemingly went up in flames.
Chelso’s grandfather, Toby Barrett, and his brother, Ellis, took up dairy farming in 1950. They started out with 20 cows, and their herd had expanded to roughly 100 by the late 1960s. Early one morning, their barn caught fire – “spontaneous combustion,” Toby called it – and it burned to the ground. Miraculously, all the animals were saved, and neighbors and friends helped the Barretts continue to operate their business and to rebuild their barn, but the catastrophe triggered a decision by the family to go in a different direction.
The Barretts had been mulling a move into the golf business, and when they did, they hit the ground running. On June 17, 1968, they christened a nine-hole course and named it Bretwood. On July 4 of the following year, they debuted a second nine holes. Twenty years later, a third nine was added, and in 1995, the same year Chelso was born, Bretwood Golf Course became a 36-hole public facility.
“Over the course of many years, we accumulated about 600 acres,” said Toby Barrett. “The last parcel that we purchased allowed us to build the final six holes and complete the courses.”
Bretwood is a true family affair, and Toby, at age 84, continues to oversee the operation. His home sits a mid-iron shot from the clubhouse, across the parking lot and an access road. Ellis is now 93 and still lives nearby. Tom, Toby’s oldest son, is the course superintendent, and son Hugh (Chelso’s father) is the assistant superintendent. Another son, Matt, is the club professional, and daughter Bonnie and son-in-law Chuck Shortsleeve operate the restaurant and the golf shop, respectively.
Bretwood was built from start to finish by the Barretts, with the first 18 constructed off plans by prolific New England-based course architect Geoffrey Cornish, who died earlier this year at age 98. The second 18 was designed by Cornish and Hugh Barrett, and the combination of courses (the North and South) have hosted a slew of professional and amateur events, including more than a dozen New Hampshire Opens, both the men’s and women’s State Amateurs, North Atlantic and New England pro tour events, and several state high school championships.
The facility also has been utilized many times for U.S. Amateur Public Links sectional qualifiers, including this past June.
Enter young Chelso, born the same year the 36-hole course was completed. There was never much doubt that the youngster would play golf, but the game hasn’t always been his first love.
“I’ve always played golf, but from 9 to 13 years old, baseball was my big sport,” said Chelso. “I was a pitcher and catcher, and for a long time I didn’t think golf would override baseball.”
Chelso played on a Cal Ripken League team that won the state title three straight years, and they went on to win the regionals as well, playing in the Ripken World Series in Maryland when he was 12. His older brother, Brett, is an accomplished ballplayer, having played on a state high school championship team at Keene High. Brett currently plays first base at the University of Southern Maine, where he recently completed his junior year.
Gradually, though, Chelso moved away from the diamond and toward golf, perhaps helped along by the fact that he could spend the day on the course if he cared to.
“It wasn’t like I made a make-or-break decision,” said Chelso, who joined the family operation at Bretwood one summer by picking up range balls. “I started to practice and play golf a lot, and when I was 12 I played in my first 18-hole tournament. I got interested in playing some New Hampshire junior tournaments, then in the U.S. Challenge Cup tournaments around New England run by Dave Adamonis, and gradually I stopped playing baseball.”
Chelso also began playing golf very well, winning the New Hampshire Junior at age 15. He lost in the semifinals of that event last year, then rebounded to win again last month, capturing the title with a 3-and-2 victory in the final over Matthew Killam. Having performed admirably on the national stage last summer in the U.S. Junior Amateur probably put a bull’s-eye on Barrett in the state event, but he shrugged it off.
“I try not to pay attention to any of it,” Chelso said. “I’m not looking for the attention; I like to fly under the radar.”
Any chance of that went out the window, of course, when Barrett qualified seventh in the match-play field of 64 at the 2011 U.S. Junior at Gold Mountain Golf Club in Bremerton, Wash., then won five consecutive matches. Perhaps the highlight of his march to the final came in his semifinal victory over Nicolas Echavarria of Colombia, when he used the toe of his putter to stroke the ball through the collar of the green and into the hole on No. 18. It allowed Barrett to halve the hole and continue the match when Echavarria then converted his much shorter birdie putt.
Toby Barrett proudly shows off a framed three-photo sequence of his grandson’s innovative birdie on No. 18 that Gold Mountain officials sent to him, along with a notation that they considered it the most impressive clutch shot of the championship.
Barrett went on to win that match in 19 holes to reach the championship final, where he went up against Jordan Spieth, who was aiming to join Tiger Woods as the only multiple winner of the U.S. Junior. Barrett had lost to Spieth one year earlier in the first round of the U.S. Junior at Egypt Valley in Ada, Mich. Though Spieth prevailed in the final, 6 and 5, Barrett acquitted himself well, taking an early 2-up lead before Spieth, the low amateur at last month’s U.S. Open at The Olympic Club and currently the world’s top-ranked amateur, began to wear him down.
Chelso qualified for match play in last week’s U.S. Amateur Public Links, but lost in the first round at Soldier Hollow Golf Course in Utah, which was hosting its first-ever USGA championship. Now he prepares to play in the first USGA championship ever held in New Hampshire. He likes The Golf Club of New England in Stratham, which he has played a couple of times.
“It’s a true New England-style golf course,” he said. “The greens aren’t Donald Ross postage-stamp style, they’re bigger than that, but they are tough to putt. The par 3s tip out at well over 200 yards. There are not a lot of birdie holes, that’s for sure.”
Chelso is entering his senior year at Keene High, and he plans to escape the harsh New England winters for college, having verbally committed to attend Texas Christian University in Fort Worth next year. He got to know the coach of the Horned Frogs, Bill Montigel, at last year’s U.S. Amateur, and Montigel got a good idea of Chelso’s practice regimen, including his winter practice hut.
Chelson’s father, Hugh, who won the New Hampshire Amateur in 1980 and played in the U.S. Amateur the following year at The Olympic Club, built a shed (“It’s kind of like an ice-fishing hut,” Chelso said) that can be heated and offers protection from the wind, allowing the younger Barrett to hit balls pretty much all year.
“I can hit balls when it’s down to about 20 degrees outside,” Chelso said. “It helps in the winter to hit balls at least one or two times a week, to keep making that contact.”
His father is not the only other accomplished golfer in the family. Chelso is named for his maternal grandfather, Chelso Piermattei, who won club championships several times at both Bretwood and Keene Country Club. His aunt, Ali Barrett, played collegiately at Western Kentucky and was one of the top female golfers in the state.
None of them, however, got the opportunity to compete in a USGA championship in their native state.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.