Steve Serrao wins 72nd VSGA Senior Amateur Championship
By Chris Lang
“Even though I hit a fade, just looking at that road over there (on the left), out of bounds, it’s scary,” Serrao said.
Yet here Serrao was on Friday, playing the course’s opening hole for the second time in the final match of the 72nd Virginia State Golf Association Senior Amateur Championship, having watched a 4-up lead on the back nine against Dave Pulk wither away, needing to summon a great shot to regain the momentum.
He sent his drive right, into a tree, where it rattled around some branches and dropped to the ground, leaving him a tricky approach to the green. Serrao took a deep breath, made contact, and hit one of the best shots of his life, the ball settling 18 inches from the cup.
“Best shot I’ve ever hit, considering the situation,” Serrao said. “I didn’t even know it was that close. I was just so happy it was on the green.”
After Pulk’s 12-foot birdie putt slid inches right of the hole, Serrao tapped home his birdie, dropped his putter, grabbed his hat and screamed.
Total catharsis. Total relief. A championship moment realized.
Serrao, a Midlothian resident and member at Willow Oaks Country Club, defeated Williamsburg’s Pulk in 19 holes in a championship match that didn’t gain steam until the final seven holes. With the win, Serrao became the first player in VSGA history to win the association’s Junior Stroke Play and Senior Amateur titles.
“It is kind of crazy, and I never won anything in the middle,” Serrao said with a laugh. ”I always loved competing. I was a decent athlete as a kid. But I couldn’t jump real high. I wasn’t big and strong. Once I found golf, I just loved competing, and I still do. I’ve always wanted to stay fit and stay healthy and play competitive golf. I know I get nervous and I worry about stuff, but when I’m out there, I really am having fun.”
To win Friday, Serrao had to survive several wild swings of momentum, along with his own nerves. A quick rundown:
Serrao won the first two holes as Pulk struggled to convert short putts, including one on No. 2 that hung on the lip of the cup. He pushed the lead to 4 up with back-to-back birdies on Nos. 5 and 6.
Pulk missed a 6-foot birdie putt on No. 8 and didn’t take advantage of an opportunity on No. 10. Serrao’s drive went so far left that he had no look at the green and had to punch back into the fairway, but Pulk’s approach shot was well short, and both players settled for bogey.
Finally, something went Pulk’s way on No. 12, as he hit a delicate bunker shot to within two feet and converted his par as Serrao—who was well above the hole and faced a long downhill putt— three-putted for bogey. Pulk cut the lead to 3 up, and for the first time in the match, Pulk had the honor on the next tee box.
Serrao muscled a birdie putt well past the hole on 13 and three-putted for bogey. Pulk made bogey as well, but Serrao missed a chance to regain the momentum.
On 14, Pulk hit his drive left into a tree but got a fortuitous bounce. His approach settled five feet from the flagstick and he made the birdie putt to cut the lead to 2.
Serrao’s tee shot on the par-3 15th went well right, and he was unable to get up and down for par. Pulk’s par cut Serrao’s lead to 1 up.
Then on 16, Serrao hit his drive into the creek along the right side and had to take a penalty stroke. Still, he hit an approach to 18 inches and converted his par. But Pulk sank a crucial 15-foot birdie putt to even the match.
Both players made par on 17 and 18, setting up the dramatic extra hole. Pulk, a past Senior Open of Virginia champion making his first VSGA Senior Amateur title match appearance, had mixed emotions after the match. He was pleased with his ability to fight back but frustrated with his inability to convert putts in the early going.
“If you’re going to lose a match, I guess losing to a great shot is the way to do it,” Pulk said. “Steve played a little better than I did to start off, and being four down, that’s tough to come back from.”
Serrao, who grew up in both Richmond and Virginia Beach and played four years at the University of Virginia, nearly gave up on the game 11 years ago. Then he found an ally in PGA teaching professional
Mike Hott, who helped him find a way to have fun again on the golf course.
“My golf game was just all over the place, and I was just so frustrated,” Serrao said, adding that professionals Richard White and Sean Patterson at Willow Oaks have been tremendously supportive of his game. “It was one of the guys who I had played with in a State Am qualifier. I had shot a million at Brandermill, a course I know I can play pretty well. I asked the kid who he works with, and he said Mike Hott.
“So I called Mike, and he rebuilt me, basically. I know my swing probably looks the same to a lot of people, the tempo looks the same. But I went 18 months before I could compete.”
That relationship continued this week, and after Thursday’s semifinals, Serrao texted with Hott, seeking advice.
“I got this gigantic, big long text back from him. He told me how to calm down, how to relax. Try to breathe. Just stick to what we worked on. I have a little black book, and every time I take a lesson, I write stuff down, what I’m doing wrong, and how I fixed it. I read that this morning, and I hit the ball great today.”
Serrao never had any ambitions of playing professional golf after his time at UVa, and as he raised a family, he had little time to practice and his game suffered. Once Hott helped him get back on track,
Serrao started to see results. He made the semifinals of the VSGA Amateur in 2017 as a 49 year old, and last year, he was part of the winning side at the VSGA Senior Four-Ball Championship. His partner, Cam
Young, won the Senior Amateur later that year. Friday, Serrao matched that feat, showing steely resolve in surviving a massive challenge from Pulk to hoist the trophy.
“I’ve had a tough year, with everything … putting, hitting, I was getting really concerned,” Serrao said, recalling the 10 he took on No. 1 at this year’s Senior Stroke Play Championship. “Took a nice long vacation with my family in Europe, and when I came back, I just thought about what was going on with my swing. And it worked out.”
Lang is the editor of Virginia Golfer magazine and the VSGA’s manager, digital media.