West Caldwell, N.J. – Joe Russo was 25 when he started playing golf, much later than most of the other USGA Senior Amateur competitors took up the game.
The former college baseball pitcher was a police officer at the time, and the town in southern New Jersey where he worked allowed officers to play its courses for free. He took advantage of the perk, which meshed with his schedule, to blossom into something of a late bloomer.
“I worked from 11 at night until 7 in the morning,” said Russo, who lives in Sewell, N.J., 30 minutes south of Philadelphia. “I played all day long, slept for a few hours, then went to work. I played five days a week.”
The self-taught Russo improved quickly and even became a club professional for a couple of years before regaining his amateur status.
“I spent a lot of time on golf,” said Russo, who turned 55 on Sept. 13 and was the youngest player at Mountain Ridge. “But I realized that the PGA doesn’t have as good a pension as the PBA [Policemen’s Benevolent Association].”
Since retiring in 2010, Russo has spent even more days on the course as he anticipated being eligible for the Senior Amateur.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for two years,” said Russo, who made several attempts to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open. “This is the highest level an old guy like me can play at. So it’s a thrill for me.
“This summer, I went 36 days in a row playing. And probably 12 of those days were 36-hole days.”
That prepared Russo for the long days at Mountain Ridge, as he qualified for match play in a playoff, then won two matches before losing to 2010 Senior Amateur champion Paul Simson in the third round.
“My goal was just to make match play,” said Russo, who made birdie on the second playoff hole to qualify, then survived a 20-hole match the same day. “My wife and I decided match play was the cake. Yesterday and today were a lot more icing.”
Russo’s wife, Mary, is his biggest supporter. She walked every hole he played, and was joined on Tuesday by their 16-year-old son, Joey. During Russo’s match against Simson, Mary walked briskly down the fairways, paced as Russo lined up shots and rode the emotional highs and lows of every good shot and bad break that he experienced.
On the 10th hole, Russo, who was 1 down at the time, faced a 10-foot putt to match Simson’s birdie and avoid falling 2 down. Standing 20 yards off the green, Mary nervously hopped from foot to foot as Russo was over the putt. When the ball fell into the hole, she let out a yell that pierced through the rain: “Yes!”
For Russo, the only aspect of the championship better than reaching the third round was sharing it with his family.
“It wouldn’t have been as much fun if my wife hadn’t been here,” said Russo. “It was not far from home, but she would have come no matter where it was.
“Other than him being born, one of my biggest thrills was when my son played 18 holes for the first time. He was 6. Now he’s beaten me a couple of times this summer. He ribs me and says, ‘I’m coming for you.’”
Member Does Club Proud
Mountain Ridge Country Club member Jay Blumenfeld’s Senior Amateur run ended in the second round with a loss to defending champion Louis Lee, who went on to beat Donald Detweiler in the third round.
Playing in front of a supportive gallery that grew from about 10 members on the first tee to several dozen on the inward nine, Blumenfeld suffered a couple of early three-putts and couldn’t make up the deficit.
“Louis is a great player and a great gentleman,” said Blumenfeld. “I would have had to play my best to beat him, and I didn’t have my best game. That’s why he’s the defending champ.”
Blumenfeld’s play helped energize the championship and engaged the Mountain Ridge community.
“He generated a tremendous amount of excitement among the members,” said John Kessler, general chairman of the USGA Senior Amateur and a Mountain Ridge member. “They love Jay. This event has brought to the club national prominence. This club used to be New Jersey’s best-kept secret. The cat’s out of the bag.”
Brothers Stan and Louis Lee share plenty, including the USGA Senior Amateur title. Now 60, Stan became the youngest winner – 55 years and 5 days – of the championship in 2007. Last year, Louis, 56, also won the championship in his first year of eligibility.
At Mountain Ridge, Stan is on Louis’ bag, continuing an arrangement that began last year. After Louis defeated Stan in the quarterfinals, Stan caddied for his younger brother in his final two matches, guiding him to the championship.
This year, Stan is looping for Louis from the start, since he couldn’t compete due to gall bladder surgery.
“It’s a little bit excruciating being here this week because I really want to play,” said Stan. “But to be able to be here with Louis – I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
When reading putts, the Lees agree 90 percent of the time. When they don’t, Louis trusts his brother’s eye, as he did over a putt on the 16th hole to close out his third-round match against Donald Detweiler.
“I didn’t see as much break as he saw,” said Louis. “But he read it right and I made it. Without him, I might not be here.”
The formula has been successful, as the duo has been a formidable team. Louis is undefeated in the USGA Senior Amateur, with nine match victories over two years.
“It’s almost like two on one,” said Jay Blumenfeld, who lost to Louis in the second round. “I was playing against not one but two Senior Amateur champions. That’s a big advantage.”
Hunki Yun is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Kelly O'Shea is the USGA's summer online intern. Email them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.