GREENLAND — On Friday, golfers from the region and beyond came to Portsmouth Country Club to take part in one of the regular “noon games” that longtime member Craig Steckowych runs.
The competition is the big attraction. In this case, it was also one of the last looks golfers will get at the layout that hugs Great Bay before the 116th New Hampshire Amateur golf championship opens here on Monday.
It’s been 16 years since Portsmouth CC last hosted the State Am and, while there have been significant changes to the tournament, the course itself is much like the veteran players remember it.
“They will be playing the same course that they did in 2003, with one fairly major change,” said Bill Andrews, the head pro at Portsmouth CC for the last two decades.
That change involves a reconstructed 15th hole, which back then was a short par-4 and one of the easiest holes on the course. But the tees were moved back and the pond in front of them expanded to five times its size.
It sets up a terrific stretch of finishing holes that should add all kinds of drama to the event, especially once the matches begin on Wednesday. The top 64 players after two rounds of qualifying on Monday and Tuesday qualify for match play.
It’s a huge contrast to last year’s State Am at Hanover CC, a shorter course on less acreage that featured “target golf” and tighter holes. From the tips, par-72 Portsmouth CC plays 7,153 yards, making it one of the longest layouts in the state.
“It’s more towards what you’re used to for a championship course,” said Harvin Groft of The Oaks, one of the top local players. “You don’t have a lot of short, quirky holes like last year.”
“The golf course is right in front of you,” said Steckowych.
N.H. Golf Association executive director Matt Schmidt, who was at the course Friday morning looking at potential pin placements, said the course will play between 6,800 and 6,900 yards during the two qualifying rounds, in part to ensure that a field of 156 players concludes those rounds in a timely fashion, especially with wind off the bay throwing another variable at golfers.
“It’s hard to imagine a day where they’re not going to see significant wind,” said Andrews.
None of the last seven champions are in the field. Mike Martel (2013 and ‘17), Chris Houston (2016), Connor Greenleaf (2015) and Joe Leavitt (2012 and ‘14) have all turned pro. Defending champion Matt Paradis is not entered.
Four of the quarterfinalists from 2003 are in this year’s field: two-time champion Steckowych, who is now two decades removed from his last title but nobody to look past; five-time Seacoast Amateur champ Brett Wilson of the Golf Club of New England; Ryan Friel of Overlook GC; and former champion Danny Arvanitis of Derryfield CC.
The champion that year was Austin Eaton III, who used his first State Am title as a springboard to bigger things, winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur championship a year later.
Locally, other players to watch next week include Groft, who claimed his first NHGA title (the Mid-Amateur Match Play) in May; college players Eric Evans (Hartford) of Portsmouth CC, Ryan Quinn (RPI) of Breakfast Hill and Nick Hampoian (UConn) of the Golf Club of New England; Jamie Ferullo of Rochester CC, a quarterfinalist in three of the last four years; veteran Mike Mahan of The Oaks; and teenager Justin Grondahl of GCNE, the reigning New Hampshire schoolboy champ.
“New Hampshire amateur golf has come a long way,” said Steckowych. “The players have gotten much better and the depth of the field has gotten much better.
“(In 2003) I would have told you it was going to be one of a dozen guys that could win. Now that number’s doubled, and is probably even more than that.”
This is the fourth time this layout has hosted the State Am since it opened in 1959. The other times were in 1966, 1983 and 2003.
The redesigned 15th hole gives Portsmouth CC as strong a set of finishing holes as the tournament’s had in recent years. The 16th is a bunker-protected par-3, while Nos. 17 and 18 — at 445 and 448 yards, respectively, from the back tees — are daunting par-4s.
“We have two very strong finishing holes that can be greatly enhanced with some sort of wind,” said Steckowych. “A two-up lead with two to go, and a 10 mph wind in your face, is going to be very significant.”
“It used to be, ‘Grab a birdie on 15,' because birdies on 16, 17 and 18 don’t come easy,” said Andrews. “Now, 15 is no cakewalk. … There will be some exciting ends of matches. No match will be over because anything can happen now on 15, 16, 17 and 18.”
After the qualifying rounds Monday and Tuesday, there will be one round of match play on Wednesday, and two rounds of matches on both Thursday and Friday. The 36-hole championship match tees off Saturday morning.
Toss in the scenery on the edge of Great Bay — a third of the 18 holes feature prominent water hazards, most notably No. 4, No. 12 and No. 14 — and the state’s best amateur golfers are looking forward to a memorable week, for as long as they can make it last.
“It’s a nice piece of property to be on,” said Groft.