The Salem Country Club membership last Sunday did something they’ve waited more than 100 years to do: honor one of their own as the Massachusetts Amateur champion.
Steven DiLisio, a senior at Duke University and a third generation Salem member, finally pulled off the daunting feat last month at The Country Club in record scoring fashion; he found time before heading down to Durham for his final year to welcome a sizable turnout of members who saluted him with a late afternoon reception on the sun-splashed terrace.
Salem was founded in 1895. The first Massachusetts Amateur was held in 1903 at nearby Myopia (winner was Arthur G. Lockwood, who also won in 1905 and ‘06). Players have won the Amateur before or after they were members at Salem, but never during. Joe Batchelder is the only other Salem amateur champion of note, having won the 1930 New England Amateur.
More recently, the closest a Salem member has come to winning the coveted crown came 39 years ago in 1980. That was when Salem hosted the championship for a fifth time and local attorney Jack McNiff, a former state junior titlist, was the headlining performer all week until Fall River’s Jim McDermott defeated Cinderella favorite McNiff in the semifinals, 3 and 2, and went on to win his second title.
McNiff, at 62 a cancer survivor wearing a colostomy bag, was co-medalist with Haverhill’s Paul Cortese, half McNiff’s age, in the 36-hole on-site qualifier for match play, shooting a two-over-par 146. McNiff stunningly won his first three matches before falling to McDermott, yet his showing remains stuff of true legend at Salem four decades later and in 19th holes around the North Shore.
But Sunday was DiLisio’s time to shine in adulation, and he was humble, as always, in accepting club-wide congratulations, led by club president Tom Bates.
“We couldn’t be more proud of what Steven has accomplished as a golfer and how he has represented Salem Country Club,” Bates told this agent as members congratulated the 21-year-old from Swampscott on the spacious club terrace that overlooks the first, ninth and 18th holes on their classic Donald Ross course.
As the magnificent Massachusetts Cup stood nearby, DiLisio expressed his gratitude for the years-long support he has received from the membership and staff as his game has developed on their favorite fairways and greens in West Peabody.
“I’m pretty overwhelmed at the support here today and for so long, especially at The Country Club during the championship,” he told the gathering. “I’m thrilled you all came by here and just as thrilled to be the champion from Salem Country Club with this beautiful trophy.”
To overhear the conversations taking place during the reception, one understood that this was not only an event honoring DiLisio, who returns to Duke Thursday for his senior year. It also was an acknowledgement of the extraordinary upbringing he has received from his parents, Dana and Cheryl, and the superb role model he has had in older brother Anthony, a former Division 3 All-American golfer at Skidmore.
We should also add grandfather Vincent DiLisio to the group. He was in attendance, at 87, Sunday despite having recently undergone surgery for an aneurysm. He would not have missed the event for the world.
“I remember when my grandfather Vinnie took me out to the ninth hole here, when I was real little, and he’d have me hit balls from in front of the pond over the water toward the green,” Steven recalled when he was just starting out swinging a club. “I’d clear the water with a shot, then step back and several feet and swing away again. I put a lot of balls in the pond, but I cleared the pond a lot too. That was great fun for both of us, as young as I was.”
All those swings as a six-, seven-year-old culminated in mid-July when Steven shot an aggregate 21-under-par during two stroke play rounds and five match-play confrontations at The Country Club, venue for the 2022 U.S. Open. That was culminated by his 3 and 2 victory over Hopkinton’s Jim Horval in the 36-hole championship match.
“Steven’s come this far as a golfer pretty much on his own, on his talent,” says exceedingly proud papa Dana, a single digit player in his own right. “He’s an average kid who has dedicated himself to the game, kept the right perspective, tried to have fun along the way, tried to be normal. Cheryl and I have simply tried to guide him whenever he’s asked for direction or our opinion. Otherwise we’ve simply supported his desire, his drive to compete and get better as a golfer. Cheryl has done the hard work, driving Steven everywhere to tournaments before we let him drive to them on his own. Anthony has been a big help, too, for the wonderful example he has set as a golfer and person.”
“Me? Steven has done all this by himself,” Anthony, 28, points out modestly, when you and I know the impact of an older sibling can play a huge role in a younger sibling’s growth. “He had the swing down, or so it seemed, maybe 15 years ago as a real little guy. We could see it. I’m just glad I was around to watch him become who he is today.”
Grampy Vinnie may have been the happiest member of the well-known Salem CC golfing clan on the terrace. “Steven is such a good boy and a hard worker on his game,” Vinnie said. “I am just so proud of him.”
As for his senior year at Duke, where the Blue Devils, with four returning starters, will be one of the NCAA Division 1 favorites next spring?
“We’ll have high hopes,” says Steven. “Me? I’ll try and keep the same mindset, the same attitude; try and play as free of doubts and worries as I can. We’re all looking forward to the fall and spring seasons.”
One addendum to last week’s tribute to Ed Whalley: he had the honor, as a teenager, to caddy for Ben Hogan during the 1953 Francis Ouimet Fund exhibition at Salem Country Club that included Sam Snead, Jimmy Demaret and Jack Burke, Jr. and drew 1500 galleryites.
“One of the great people we’ve had in golf all these years from the North Shore,” says long-time chum Ed Collins, retired construction executive who caddied with Whalley at Salem, attended Merrimack College with Whalley and cheered him on in person when he contended for the Insurance City Open back in the late 1950s.
Congrats to Turner Hill Director of Instruction Webb Heintzelman, whose sole round of 68 — earning the Middleton resident a three-way tie for second place at the lightning-shortened New England PGA Senior championship at Woodstock — also gave him a berth in the Senior National Club Pro tourney in October. Kirk Hanefeld of Salem shot two-over 72 but will join Webb at the nationals as a former champion. Pleasant Valley’s Paul Parajeckas won the tourney at Woodstock with a 66. Beverly’s David Dionne shot 71 while Bass Rocks’s Todd Scarafoni and Far Corner’s John O’Connor each carded 73s.
Had a great time renewing old acquaintances and making new friends as a guest at the Friday night dinner during the 100th anniversary Essex Invitation Fourball. It was great in particular to see 10-time club champ Jack Nies and long time Massachusetts Golf Association (now Mass Golf) official Bill Van Faasen, the former CEO of Massachusetts Blue Cross and Blue Shield; a huge supporter of all aspects of Bay State golf and 2015 recipient of the Ouimet Fund’s Spirit of Golf Award. Sadly, a snow storm forced cancellation of a sold-out dinner feting Van Faasen, recognition he deserved ... We mourn the passing of Vincent St. Onge, Jackie Simpson and Zetta Herrick ... Kevin Daly followed his fourth straight Salem CC club championship by teaming with Scott Gannon and winning the Salem Classic with 71-71-142, three shots better than Bob Bogart and Kevin Collins. John Veneziano and Barry Riskin won net with 155-128.
Reading The Greens is a weekly column on North Shore golf by Gary Larrabee, who has covered golf locally and beyond for the last 50 years.