By Murray Evans
NORMAN – Now that he’s no longer working in golf, Peter Vitali of Oklahoma City has had much more time to play and sharpen his skills – enough so that he now can call himself a state champion.
In a meeting between former pros who since have regained their amateur status, Vitali held off Dustin Wigington of Oklahoma City 2 and 1 on a mild, humid Friday morning in the title match of the Oklahoma Golf Association Senior State Amateur Championship at The Trails Golf Club, earning Vitali his first OGA crown.
Vitali overcame an early deficit by taking advantage of Wigington’s troubles off the tee, winning four out of five holes (and nearly all five) during a mid-match stretch. That run took Vitali from a deficit to a 3-up lead through 12 holes and he eventually closed out the match on No. 17.
“It was tough,” Vitali said. “I just kept my head down and kept grinding, honestly. That was a really hard match. That’s the most I’ve had to focus down and concentrate in years.”
A former collegiate golfer at Connecticut, Vitali spent much of his adult life as a golf professional, working in Florida, Colorado, Massachusetts and New York before moving to Oklahoma (his wife’s home state) and eventually landing at Gaillardia Country Club in Oklahoma City.
But life as a head pro, director of golf or general manager – roles which Vitali held at Gaillardia – doesn’t mean one gets to play golf as much as an outsider might think.
“I’ve played more golf as an amateur than I did as a golf professional,” Vitali said. “You can quote that. When you focus on the business side, it really takes you away from the golf course. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time playing. Now I’ve pivoted into a new role … and I have the weekends with my family and I can play golf.”
Vitali left Gaillardia in 2015 to enter the finance world and after he turned 50 last September, he was eager to begin competing in OGA senior events. He qualified in the middle of the pack – as the 16th seed – on Tuesday, then knocked off defending champion and top-seeded Christopher Laughlin of Edmond 3 and 2 in the second round on Wednesday
On Thursday, he beat another former champion, Blake Gibson, 1-up in the semifinals to earn a title-match berth opposite Wigington, a former NCAA Division II All-America player at Cameron (in 1993) who won 10 professional events before he decided to try and regain his amateur status and begin competing again. Wigington teamed with Conrad Walcher last month to win the OGA Four-Ball Championship at Dornick Hills Country Club in Ardmore.
“I kind of got the itch again,” Wigington said. “I missed the competition and I’ll probably start playing amateur golf a lot more.”
On Friday, Wigington had all sorts of issues with his tee shots, often hitting them somewhere other than the fairway. But his stellar short game kept him afloat and propelled him to an early lead, as he sunk a 20-foot birdie putt on the par-3 No. 2. He gave the lead away with a bogey on the par-4 No. 3 but went back up a hole after Vitali bogeyed the par-3 No. 6.
Wigington hit into mud next to tallgrass growing by a small creek on the par-4 No. 7, but blasted his second shot to within two feet to save par, halve the hole and preserve his lead.
He wasn’t so fortunate after another errant tee shot on the par-4 No. 8 left him with a difficult second shot, from the right rough on the side of a slope, just a few feet from away from being unplayable. He hit it into the water on the left side of the hole and ended up with a bogey, allowing Vitali to tie the match.
“That was a gift,” Vitali said. “I wasn’t expecting it. He gave me a gift on (No.) 8 and a gift on (No.) 9 and there’s the match right there. I thought I was going to have a hard day, with the way he was getting up and down on the front. My short game is not as good as his. I just need to hit greens.”
On No. 9, Wigington again was right with his tee shot and had to punch out into the fairway, resulting in another bogey, while Vitali two-putted from 20 feet for par to take the lead for good.
Vitali won his third straight hole by rolling in an 18-foot birdie putt on the par-4 No. 10. He missed a par putt by inches on the par-5 No. 11 and halved the hole, but he won No. 12 to go 3-up, making a 12-foot birdie putt while Wigington missed from 20 feet.
After hitting his tee shot into the lip of a fairway bunker, Vitali hit a 15-foot putt to save par at No. 14, allowing him to halve the hole, but he followed by hitting his tee shot into the water on the par-4 No. 15. Wigington hit his second shot to within 10 feet and Vitali conceded the hole, cutting his lead to two holes. Wigington nearly won the par-3 No. 16 but sent an 18-foot birdie putt just right.
On No. 17, with Vitali’s second shot within five feet of the hole and Wigington facing a chip from behind the green for his third shot, Wigington conceded the hole and the match.
“This is the first time I was over par this week,” Wigington said. “I just did not hit it well off the tee. I couldn’t get it in play to get enough looks at birdie. My short game kept me in it, to go as long as it did, and Peter made great putts.”