By Dalton Balthaser


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SEEKONK, Mass. – Two teaching professionals along with two of Rhode Island’s young stars took spots in USGA sectional qualifying in a U.S. Open Local Qualifier managed by the Rhode Island Golf Association Monday at Ledgemont Country Club (par 70, 6,581 yards).


Connecticut National Golf Club teaching professional Fletcher Babcock gained medalist honors by the way of a 1-under-par 69. Eric Barlow and Billy Walthouse, also professionals, along with amateur Tyler Cooke carded rounds of even-par 70 to snatch the remaining spots.


Professional Rich Berberian, Jr. also matched a 70 but didn’t return for what would’ve been a four-for-three playoff.


The 119th edition of the U.S. Open will take place at Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, Calif. June 10-16.


The only time Babcock saw Ledgemont was in a practice round. He didn’t let that lack of experience put him behind the proverbial 8-ball. He opened with birdies on Nos. 3 (par 4, 412 yards) and 5 (par 4, 361 yards) as a result of pure wedge shots each inside 12 feet.


He then kept his momentum with two quick birdies to begin his closing nine. A smooth lob wedge from 83 yards to four feet on No. 10 (par 4, 386 yards) and a 7-iron on No. 13 (par 3, 180 yards) to 20 feet pushed him to 2 under. No. 13 was converted to a par 3 due to wet conditions. He finished his last five holes with four pars and a bogey to post the clubhouse lead at 1 under.


Babcock said 1 under might get him in a playoff at best but it got him medalist honors. Breezy conditions wreaked havoc on some of the afternoon chargers. 


“I hit the ball solid today,” said Babcock, 26, of Danielson, Conn. “I struggle with my putter but the greens here were pure, which helped me. I wanted to avoid big numbers and hit the ball solidly. Up at Connecticut National it is windy all of the time, so I am used to playing in these conditions.”


Last year at a U.S. Open qualifier at Pawtucket Country Club, Babcock bogeyed three of his final four holes to miss out on advancing. He wasn’t going to let that happen again. 


“My irons were the best part of my game today,” said Babcock, in his fourth season at Connecticut National. “I struggled to scramble well today but because I was striking my irons well enough that I didn’t need to worry about having to get up-and-down for par frequently.”


He’ll make his first trip to sectionals in the upcoming weeks.


“I love Rhode Island courses,” said Babcock. “I usually play well around here. It was nice to do it again.”


Barlow rebounded nicely after an early double bogey on No. 6 (par 3, 212 yards) and carded three birdies in his next six holes on Nos. 8 (par 5, 492 yards), 11 (par 5, 581 yards) and 12 (par 3, 180 yards) to put him in an ideal position to advance. 


“It sounds kind of funny but I didn’t have one care in the world when I walked up to the first tee today,” said Barlow, 39, of Winchester, Mass. “I have no idea when I would pick up another club after today. It was just a round of golf and I wanted to see if I could get something going.”


Barlow, in his sixth season as a teaching pro at Winchester Country Club in Winchester, Mass., said the key shot of his round was on No. 16 (par 4, 435 yards). He hit an 8-iron from 180 yards to 20 feet and buried the putt to get 1 under. He would give it back on the next hole but even par would still be enough.


“I’ve played well here before,” said Barlow. “It will be exciting to go to the next level of qualifying. I don’t know when I’ll practice but it was nice to get a good result without having been able to play and practice much lately.”


Cooke, the 2018 Rhode Island Golf Association Player of the Year, went out in 2-under-par 34 after four birdies on his front nine. He then was in the 17th fairway when he chose the wrong club on his second shot that left a treacherous chip that he failed to get up and down.


Then after a bogey on No. 18 (par 4, 420 yards) left him thinking he wasted a good opportunity, Cooke was visibly upset. 

After a stressful wait, Cooke was also moving on to sectional qualifying for the first time.


“I am trying to get more consistent in bigger events,” said Cooke, 27, of Warwick, R.I. “I played well at the Terra Cotta Invitational in Naples, Fla. but I had some bad holes. The weather hasn’t been good up here so it has been tough to get out but I have been trying to play nine holes each day.


“I said to myself that if I birdied No. 1 (par 5, 477 yards), I was going to get in. I thought I hit it well enough to score here since I have plenty of experience playing the course.”


Walthouse, another young Rhode Island talent, punched his ticket to sectional qualifying for the second consecutive year after carding three birdies and three bogeys on his round. 


“I just recently got full-status on the Mackenzie Tour (PGA Tour Canada),” said Walthouse, 23, of Longmeadow, Mass. “Since I returned from spending the winter in Florida, I hadn’t played much up here so the conditions were a little different. I didn’t have high expectations but I just wanted to piece the round together.”


Walthouse said he had a couple of instances where things went his way. A holed bunker shot for birdie on No. 12 and a 35-foot putt for par on No. 16 kept the momentum rolling and Walthouse in the hunt.


“Playing in Monday qualifiers and pre-qualifying in the wintertime helped me build some confidence and experience,” said Walthouse. “It helps me figure out when to attack and when to play conservatively. Building off of each experience as a stepping stone has helped me find my way around the competitive circuit.”