The Ballo family name is golf royalty in the PGA of America teaching circles.
Michael Ballo Sr., the family's patriarch, started working as a caddie at Woodway Country Club in Darien, Connecticut when he was seven. For the next 58 years, he worked at the club (outside of his three-year Navy service), the last 31 as the head pro. Michael's wife, Page, was one of the first 10 full-time women members of the PGA America and still works in the industry at 65.
And in a script that would make Hollywood producers blush, today, their two sons, Michael Jr. and Peter, both PGA members in the area, met in the final of the section's match play event. On the same course their Dad dedicated his life to, the same course they played thousands of rounds, and the same course just one month ago, they spread Michael Sr.’s ashes.
Woodway Country Club was designed in 1916 by two-time Open Championship winner Willie Park Jr. The now 6900-yard layout features deceptive greens and has the Noroton River running through it.
For decades Michael Ballo Sr. was Woodway Country Club. From his first loop at the age of seven on the course, to his retirement in 2001, Michael was always there, the steadying presence. Between teaching, developing his assistant pros (every one of his assistants went on to be head pros), and being a father to Michael Jr. and Peter, he squeezed into an impressive playing career. He won the Connecticut Open twice and played in four US Opens, three PGA Championships, and a Senior US Open.
Ballo was inducted into the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame in 2021. In April of 2022, Michael Sr. passed away at 80. Just last month, on the first anniversary of his passing, the Ballo family gathered on the 16th tee, the site of the old clubhouse where he spent most of his life, and scattered his ashes.
When Peter and Michael Jr., just two years apart, were old enough to hang out with their Dad, they spent countless days at the club, beating balls and playing. When I talked with Michael Jr., he estimated they played the course 10,000 times in their lives. "It's the most special place to me and my family," Peter told me.
The brothers were always together and always close. They played golf together in college at St. Johns University before Peter played his last two seasons at Sacred Heart. After college, Peter returned to follow in his Dad's footsteps as a teaching pro while Michael Jr. pursued the professional ranks.
The younger Michael described his Dad as "old school," but when Michael was playing the Canadian Tour, Michael Sr. took a summer class at the local community college to learn how to use a computer and follow the scores.
Golf was their life. Michael Jr. returned to the area in 2018 after a few years of chasing the PGA Tour. Like his dad, Peter has won the Connecticut Open twice and is the assistant pro at Connecticut Golf Club. Michael Jr.was an assistant at Winged Foot Golf Club for three years before moving to Westchester CountryClub. After years of work, , Jr. earned his Class-A teaching certificate, and this week's match play event was the first event as a Class-A member.
The Westchester PGA Match play event, with 64 players, is played on a different course each year. It hadn't been played at Woodway for eight years before hosting this year. The Ballo family had the event circled on their calendar. What if, they thought…
After qualifying, Michael Jr. was seeded 25th and Peter 7th, and because of that, they ended up on opposite sides of the bracket. They discussed the possibility of meeting in the final for the first time. "When we saw we were on opposite sides of the bracket, we discussed the possibility, but there are so many good players in our section, it was a long shot." Michael told me.
Peter breezed his way to the semi-finals, never trailing in any of his matches and winning them easily. Michael didn't have it as easy, grinding out wins on the 18th hole in his first two matches before winning the next two a bit easier. The semi-finals were played in back-to-back groups on Wednesday, and family members kept each brother appraised of the score. "It helped my nerves, I was always thinking about his match, so it kept my mind occupied," Peter told me.
Peter breezed through again, winning the first hole and never looking back, winning 5 & 3. Michael also won the first hole again Peter Kampmann but was in a dogfight all day. After winning the 16th to get dormie, Michael hit a perfect drive on the 17th.
As they walked to the ball, the situation hit him. "It was the most nervous I've ever been on a golf course," and it showed.
With Kampmann in the rough, a wedge in his hand, and needing only a tie on the hole to move on, it seemed like a mere formality that he would do so.. But nerves do crazy things; a bladed wedge and a poor chip led to a lost hole. On the 18th, Michael was able to make a "great par" and win the hole and the match.
On the side of the green, numerous family members and members of Woodway cheered, hugs were exchanged, and tears were shed. Seventy-four years after their Dad got his first loop at the course, Michael Jr. and Peter Ballo would face off in the section's match-play event finals there. "It's really special; I can't describe it," Michael told me.
Page Ballo took the day off her job working the clubhouse at Silvermine Golf Club and watched her two sons battle it out. Peter's wife and their 3-month-old son were there, along with numerous other family members and friends. "I wish we could split the trophy and the check, but we are competitive; we will both try to win, but there won't be a loser," Michael told me before the match.
The final was back and forth, with both brothers having a maximum of a 1-up lead. The two were tied on the 16th hole, the same one they had gathered just a month before to scatter their Dad's ashes. Mike got up and down on the difficult par-four to go one up and closed the match on the next hole with a birdie.
The brothers embraced. Tears were shed. A perfect ending to a perfect week.