NASHUA – Ryan Kohler left Keene at 5:20 a.m. Thursday, golf clubs, pull cart and a small suitcase — packed, of course — in his car trunk.
Good call on the suitcase.
Kohler rolled to two more match-play victories Thursday at the 117th N.H. Amateur Golf Championship at steamy, firm, and lush-green Nashua Country Club, where temperatures topped 90 degrees by noon.
That was the game plan, of course, but back-to-back wins on this long, grueling elimination day at this event are as far from a guarantee as it gets.
His big day on the course complete, Kohler planned to spend Thursday night at a nearby hotel. “I need all the rest I can get,” the easy-going 36-year-old, facing another early wake-up call Friday, said.
Only this time, Kohler can skip the hour and half drive, the quick warm-up and have a more normal pre-round routine.
On Friday, it will take one more two-win day to vault Kohler into Saturday’s championship match. The Fall Mountain Regional High and Keene State baseball standout has come close before.
Twice he has appeared in the semifinals, at Laconia where he lost to eventual champion Chris Houston in 2016, and on this course in 2011, when that year’s eventual champion, Jim Cilley, eliminated Kohler on the 18th and final hole of their match.
The State-Am began with a 156-player field. Kohler is joined in the final eight by another player with area ties, Cameron Salo, a Mascenic High graduate who plays out of The Shattuck in Jaffrey.
Salo, with good friend Luke Martel on his bag, has been impressive from the start in this State-Am, earning the No. 5 seed after two days of stroke play.
Salo, 28, ousted Nick Fairweather Wednesday, put a 7-and-5 hurt on Austin Fox Thursday morning, and ground out an impressive 1-up win in the afternoon against 2008 State-Am winner Mark Stevens.
Another Shattuck member, James Kinnunen, fell in the morning Thursday to William Huang, arguably the most impressive player in the field. The Stanford-bound teen, meticulous and business-like in all aspects of his game, earned the No. 2 seed in stroke play and scored a pair of easy-looking 5-and-4 wins Thursday.
On Friday, Kohler draws good friend and Nashua member James Pleat, the medalist after shooting 13-under for his combined rounds Monday and Tuesday while paired with Kohler.
Pleat, 29, the son of three-time winner Phil Pleat, who was eliminated Thursday afternoon, was dominant in his morning win but had to go two extra holes to survive a scare from another Nashua CC player, Eric McCoy, in the intense afternoon sun.
Kohler and Pleat tee off a 7:30. Right behind them, in the same top bracket, Salo gets red-hot Ryan Brown of Manchester CC, who took down two of the state’s top veterans, Danny Arvanitis and Craig Steckowych, the latter in convincing fashion.
Steckowych, 61, was coming off a win over defending champion John DeVito in the morning.
Kohler’s amateur resume is chock full but winning this event would top it.
Thursday, he ousted Jack Pepin 4-and-3 and Josh Farmer 3-and-2. Against Farmer, he birdied the first hole and never trailed.
“Overall, I’ve been hitting it really solid the last two days,” he said. “I’ve only missed a few greens over the three matches. This course suits me well because it’s set up by how well you drive the ball and that’s my strength.”
In his morning match, Kohler reached the par 5 second hole in two, with an iron, and made birdie to go up. He then birdied holes six, seven and eight, which include two par threes.
Pepin got one back at the 10th hole, but Kohler responded quickly with another birdie, at 12, when his lob wedge approach fell 8 feet from the pin, and he holed the short putt.
Pepin hit his tee shot at the 200-yard par three 13th to 3 feet and made birdie to cut Kohler’s lead to three. But Kohler ended the match at the par four 15th, which was playing from the forward tees at 275 yards. He drove the green and had a 10-foot eagle putt when Pepin conceded the match.
“Over the years I changed my mindset,” Kohler said of his approach in this event. “I just try to go out and shoot a score and not get caught up in the other guys. There are so many pivotal moments in a match, and you can’t get caught up in the win-loss waves of each hole.
Like Kohler, Salo has a full and accomplished amateur career, but said this week has been different. Lucky to have one day a week to focus on golf because of his job, he is playing without expectation, he said.
“I’ve always been a pretty confident player, but I’m just enjoying having the opportunity to be out here playing,” Salo said after his Thursday morning win.
Salo said he paints electrical and wireless towers for National Grid, in Rhode Island and New Hampshire, and it makes for long days and long weeks and leaves little time for golf.
That appreciation for being back on the course has deepened his focus this week, he said.
“You drive it straight here and you will have birdie chances,” Salo added. “That’s what I’ve done.”
And, he could add, eagle chances. Against Fox he built a 4-up lead after 10 holes, birdied the 12th hole with a 5-foot putt and was conceded his birdie at 13, which ended the match.
In Friday’s other bracket, Huang meets talented and steady Harvin Groft, and Jack Brown, another host-course player on a good run, meets Cameron Sheedy. All the young Sheedy did Thursday was defeat nine-time champ Bob Mielcarz and three-time winner Phil Pleat, decisively in each case.
Whoever advances, one thing's sure: With all previous winners eliminated, there will be a new State-Am champion crowned Saturday.
Kohler called Mielcarz the story of the week; that is, the 70-year-old getting to the Round of 16. Mielcarz came out of semi State-Am retirement in 2015, at age 65, and reached the semifinals.
“Honestly,” Kohler said, “it’s incredible to do what he’s done. It’s what makes this sport and this tournament so unique. There are more great young players out here by far than ever before, and still that can happen.”