Valley News – Back in his element: KUA’s Russell returns to amateur golf

The golf tournament that kept Evan Russell from coming home last summer ended up being the last one he played as a professional. It also reminded him why he didn’t want to be a pro anymore.

Russell dropped out of last June’s Vermont Open at Woodstock Country Club because he had earned a shot to qualify for the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship in Connecticut. He nearly succeeded, too, losing out on a nine-golfers-for-three-spots playoff to make the big-time event.

The experience reinforced the notion that success or failure for a pro golfer can come down to a single stroke. There’s no fun in that.

Russell is back to enjoying himself on the golf course. The 2012 Kimball Union Academy graduate regained his amateur status two weeks ago, just in time to qualify for this week’s Vermont Amateur championship at Stowe Country Club. Russell won the state am twice, in 2013 and ’14, while in the midst of a successful college playing career at the University of Hartford.

Those good times fueled the move to turn pro. It didn’t work out.

“I had a feeling I was going to do it from the start of college; I knew that I was going to school for golf,” Russell said in a phone interview last week. “Early in my college career was when I played my best golf, so I was waiting to get through school and do my thing. I don’t know if I fizzled out, but I kind of plateaued a little bit.

“There are so many good players, and it comes down to a short putt here or there. Before you know it, I was missing putts, shooting 1 under, 2 under when you need to be shooting 6 or 7 under to do anything.”

Russell’s vision of a professional future grew as a result of his combined amateur and college excellence.

The Essex Junction, Vt., native, who spent three years at Essex High before a family move to Grantham led to a transfer to KUA, won the New England Amateur at Green Mountain National in 2013 to go with his two Vermont Am victories. At Hartford, Russell racked up multiple all-American, all-Northeast and all-league honors, ultimately graduating in 2016 as the Hawks’ career leader in stroke average (72.47) and rounds played (131).

Russell’s pro career started well enough, qualifying for the PGA’s MacKenzie Canadian Tour the April after wrapping up at Hartford. He made just four cuts in 10 tournaments that season, dropped to conditional status and didn’t earn another start on the circuit.

Russell spent his winters in Florida playing on the one- and two-day events emblematic of the minor league circuit there. He found a golf home of sorts in Jupiter’s Club at Admirals Cove, whose teaching staff included fellow Essex standout Libby Smith and whose head pro gave Russell freedom to play the 45-hole layout frequently.

It didn’t amount to competitive success, however. Russell would return to Vermont for the summer months, not always certain that professional golf was where he truly wanted to be.

“My brother (Travis) did it for a year, so I obviously knew how tough it was for him,” Russell said. “But I was naive. I was having success at Hartford. I guess once you get out with the big boys — and I wasn’t even with the big boys — they’re so good that it comes down to very little things that go wrong to have a big effect on things.”

Russell’s pro experience isn’t uncommon for capable golfers who hail from northern New England and yearn to leave for bigger and better paydays.

Lebanon’s Pat Pelletier enjoyed both high school and college success, turning pro in 2011 by joining the PGA of America’s assistant professional program. That freed him to compete in pro tournaments, where he also found frustration with the narrow margin between doing well and doing poorly.

“To me, it was a big time and money issue to be a pro,” said Pelletier, who regained his amateur standing three years ago. “Being in New England, you have to plan for winter, summer, your travel expenses and the time to put in. When I was a pro, I didn’t have the connections yet. To be a member at a course — the ones you want to play are on the private side of things — it’s just hard to find the money to be able to go to places.

“You have to practice all the time. It’s just so time-consuming when you turn pro and do the pro life. You have to devote all your day toward golf — it’s all golf, golf, golf.”

Russell had made up his mind to regain his amateur status even as he experienced his PGA Tour near-miss last summer. He believes not playing a pro event in nearly a year helped his appeal, which was granted on June 20. He joined the field for a state am qualifier at Neshobe Golf Club in Brandon one day later and shot an even-par 72 to finish second and make the field for Stowe.

Russell is now a full-time member of the club for working stiffs. He has an “8-to-5” job, as he describes it, with a St. Albans, Vt., sporting goods company, which leaves him free for two to three nights a week and 36-hole weekends for golf. House-sitting his brother Marc’s home in North Hero, Vt., Russell has joined Champlain Country Club in Swanton, Vt., and recently broke the course record with a 7-under-par 64.

“People loved that,” Russell said with a laugh.

That should send a message to the Vermont Amateur field that its two-time former champ still has game. That part never left. Now, without the pressure of having to play for a living, Russell sounds comfortable and happy to be back in his familiar realm.

“It’s funny; I get reminded of myself every other week,” Russell said. “Those memories are firm in my brain, which is good. I pretty much, my whole career, have been pretty solid. I definitely had some good and memorable rounds throughout.

“It’s funny how everyone brings up my sophomore year (2013-14),” he added. “ ‘I remember the sophomore Evan, blah, blah, blah.’ I just roll my eyes and say, ‘I know.’ ”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.

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