A member at Sleepy since his father joined in 1986, Tilley balanced two birdies against two bogeys, then salvaged a host of hair-raising up-and-downs to post a 71 over the more difficult of the two stroke play venues. Nearby Fenway Golf Club, the other stroke play venue, plays to a par of 70, is almost 200 yards shorter than Sleepy Hollow and is expected to surrender the lower scores of the two courses. Sleepy Hollow will host the entire 64-player match play, single-elimination bracket beginning Monday morning.
Tilley’s round was about as mercurial as a ride atop Ichabod Crane’s old horse Gunpowder. He pushed his opening tee shot into the right rough, then hit what looked to be a dead solid perfect 9-iron into the green, but the ball checked up and pulled back leaving him 70 feet short of the cup.
He made the putt.
“What a start,” Tilley explained, chickling and shaking his head ironically. “I’ve been thinking about this round for three years, dreaming about it for all that time, and what a start.”
Tilley gave that early birdie back at the fifth with a 3-putt bogey at the par-4 fifth with its gorgeous skyline green overlooking the mighty Hudson.
“I got too aggressive with my first putt – it was 14 feet and I had a good look at it – but gassed it by, and then the comebacker broke the other way, and I missed that too,” he lamented.
Not to worry, Tilley regained the stroke with a textbook birdie of the short par-5 sixth. A 3-wood off the tee made it safely on to the second tier; a 3-iron played to the middle of the green left an easy 50-foot 2-putt, and he was back to red figures.
But it was the stretch of newly-designed holes at 8-12 that provided the yeoman’s share of excitement to Tilley’s round: “excitement” as in “drama” for the spectators, “agita” for Tilley and his myriad fans – club members and family following him around the course, buoying his spirits whenever and however they could. After carding an important par at the long par-4 eighth hole, a replica of the famous Road Hole at St. Andrews’ Old Course, Tilley missed the fairway at the short par-4 ninth and his 9-iron approach flew the green long and left.
“It was a critical 15-footer I made for par,” stated the veteran of 11 previous USGA Championships, including four Mid-Ams and four U.S. Amateurs. “That up-and-down kept the momentum going.”
But momentum in golf is your next shot, and Tilley again missed the green, this time at the par-3 tenth.
“Wow,” he breathed exasperatedly, “a double-cross overcook. I hit it over the bunker on the left and up on to the top tier of rough.”
Yet from the deck of that sinking ship – he was headed right back towards the water had he misplayed the shot – Tilley, who played his college golf at the University of Virginia, flopped a wedge to six feet and made the putt. The cheers reverberated all the way from that furthest point away from the clubhouse back to the 75-room Vanderbilt estate that overlooks the first and 18th holes.
But at 11 it was déjà vu all over again.
“I did it again; I double-crossed my tee shot left of left,” Tilley surmised, and he was right. The ball missed everything – fairway, bunker, even the nasty fescue patch lining the side of the fairway – leaving him a shot back to the fairway, btu not much else. After a lay-up back into a playable position, about 40 yards short of the green, Tilley could only manage to place his pitch within 35 feet of the cup.
Of course, he made it.
The carriage finally turned into a pumpkin at the par-5 12th where after missing the green in two, Tilley mis-played a chip and the severe green contours of the Double Plateau green sent his ball scurrying into the wrong tier. He 3-putted from just under 40 feet for bogey.
“Still, any time you shoot even par in a USGA event, you should be happy, and I am,” he asserted gratefully, as he scooped up his two adorable daughters into his arms after the round. (Kennedy is seven and Emmy is five.) “This is such a special day for me and such a special event for the club, I’m going to enjoy every moment of the experience.”
Tilley will have to go low tomorrow at Fenway if he hopes to make the match play bracket. Early scores out of both Fenway and Sleepy Hollow are low, and the leaders are at 3-under already, including Joe Delaney, who as we go to press is coming off a stretch of six consecutive birdies at holes 18 through five. (He started on the back nine at Sleepy Hollow.) But Tilley has two levels of experience to draw from in that endeavor. Not only will his intimate course knowledge of both Sleepy and Fenway come in handy, (he won the 2022 Metropolitan Golf Association Met Amateur at Fenway and then the Westchester Open at Sleepy in the same season), he also competed on various professional tours after college before regaining his amateur status. So the crucible of tournament golf at the highest level is no stranger to him.
“I’m not even thinking about what the cut might be,” he admitted candidly. “I’m just going to go out and play and have fun and enjoy this week for as long as I’m here.”
Such is life for the amateur golfer: the joy of the game for purity’s sake. And once you tap into that esprit, there’s no telling how many trophies you can hoist. Win, lose, or draw tomorrow, Tilley’s energy and the buoyant hearts of the members are exactly the pulse of the zeitgeist the USGA taps into with all their amateur championships. That’s the true ethos of golf. And with that as their fulcrum, they can move the golf world.