By Jon Dinan
CALLICOON It had been six years since eight-time champion Ken Cohen won the Sullivan County Democrat Two-Man Better Ball Golf Tournament.
Since that time young golfers like Josh Goldstein, Sean Semenetz and Joe Winski have dominated the event, winning all six years.
Cohen knew he had to make a change and “get younger.” So he went out and recruited “the kid,” 17-year-old up-and-comer Drew Billard to be his partner. Billard is Sullivan West’s No. 1 player and has been steadily improving since taking up the game four years ago.
Cohen’s youth movement proved to be a smart move. He and Billard played the most consistent golf from start to finish and won the 2012 Democrat by defeating two-time champions Bill Phillips and Gregg Semenetz, Sr. in the finals held at the Villa Roma Country Club.
For Cohen, the ninth victory and the fourth in as many decades, may have been the most rewarding of all.
“This definitely feels great,” said Cohen, 49, of Jeffersonville. “Every victory has been memorable, but this one had a little more meaning. I wanted to play with Drew not only because he is a good player, but I felt his youthfulness and positive outlook would give me a much-needed boost in the tournament.
“We were just very solid from start to finish. I think we made five bogeys in the 79 holes we played. More importantly, we were hitting a lot of fairways and greens. That’s what I tried to emphasize to Drew that steady play usually wins out in this tournament.”
Said Billard, “It doesn’t hurt to have a veteran like Kenny playing with you. It’s all about staying solid, and he kept me focused.”
Last year Billard won the fifth flight with partner Will O’Brien. “It’s a different ballgame in the championship flight,” Billard noted.
In the championship match, Cohen and Billard capitalized on two early bogeys by Semenetz and Phillips to take a 2-up lead after three holes. After Phillips birdied the fifth hole to go one down, Cohen responded with a birdie on seven and eagle on eight to up their advantage to 3 up. From there, Cohen-Billard hit fairways and greens and never let Phillips and Semenetz back into the match.
“Ken and Drew were the better golfers today,” said Phillips. “You can’t give them holes, and that’s what we did.
“But we’re satisfied. We had a lot of fun and that’s what it’s really all about.”
“All good things come out of the Democrat,” Semenetz added. “It’s a great event especially for families. Everyone here does a wonderful job to create a lot of good memories.”
At least Semenetz Sr. advanced farther than his son Sean and that goes a long way in the Semenetz household.
“The Democrat is about bragging rights in our family. There’s a little bit of trash talking that happens between Sean and I beforehand.”
It was Cohen and Billard’s victory over Sean Semenetz and Joe Winski in the quarterfinals that set the stage for their title run. Semenetz-Winski were the two-time defending champions and were certainly the heavy favorites to win the tournament again. But Cohen-Billard fought back from an early 2-down deficit to win holes No. 5, 7 and 8 to take a one-up lead into the back nine.
A double bogey by Semenetz-Winski gave Cohen-Billard a 2 up lead, setting up perhaps the shot of the tournament on No. 11. After punching a 5-iron out from under a pine tree to the very front of the green, Cohen sank the 70-foot birdie putt to win the hole and take a commanding 3 up lead.
“Anytime you make a putt like that, there’s luck involved,” said Cohen. “But anytime you win this tournament, some good fortune is on your side.”
In the semifinals played Sunday morning, Cohen and Billard were seemingly on their way to an easy victory, going 4-up after seven holes over Mike Goldstein and Brian Gordon of New Jersey. But Goldstein-Gordon proceeded to birdie three of the next four holes and evened the match after 11 holes. The teams halved holes 12-15 and then Cohen-Billard parred No. 16 to take a one-up lead, which they held onto. Billard made a crucial five-foot par putt on the 17th hole to maintain the 1 up lead.
While Cohen and Billard were fighting through the quarterfinals and semis, Semenetz and Phillips breezed through their first three matches, never reaching the 17th hole.
Other winners in the flighted tournament were:
Ben and Maxx Kleiner (first flight); Tyler White and Mike Kaufman (second flight); Todd Sonnenschein and Blake Starner (third flight); Marvin and Ben Newberg (fourth flight); Mike Cardo and Rich Stieglitz (fifth flight) and Mike Negri and Kevin McHale (sixth flight).
The tournament opened on Friday with Sullivan County Democrat Publisher Fred Stabbert presenting all past champions with special shirts commemorating their victories with their names and winning years emblazoned on the sleeve.
Cohen and Billard then went out and led the qualifying round with a two-under par 69, the only sub-70 round of the day. Difficult pin placements drove the scores up and three teams played off at 77 for the final spot in the championship flight. Bill and Rich Elliott made the only par on the playoff hole to grab the 16th and final seed.
The Elliotts were one of 18 “family teams” playing in this year’s Democrat, a record number that has always been at the cornerstone of the tournament’s success.