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ALL FORE FUN: Journal's Eric Rueb gets lesson from 12-year-old Vinny Papa

Providence Journal logo Providence Journal 7/18/2021 Eric Rueb, The Providence Journal

More: No cooling down Papa at Women’s Amateur

More: A SISTER ACT: Vinny Papa leads older sister Gianna by two shots at R.I. Junior Amateur

I’ve played every type of golfer imaginable. There have been wins, there have been losses, but what happened against Vincenza “Vinny” Papa last Tuesday at Wanumetonomy Golf and Country Club in Middletown was different than anything I’ve experienced.

This has nothing to do with her age — she’s 12 — or that we were playing from the same tees even though I hit the ball 60-70 yards farther than she does. I know what kind of golfer I am, I know what kind of golfer she is and, despite all of this, I thought I had a chance.

a man sitting in a grassy field: Middletown, RI, July 13, 2021 - Eric Rueb faces off against 12-year-old scratch golfer, Vincenza "Vinny" Papa of Foster, RI, at Wanumetonomy CC in Middletown.  [The Providence Journal / Kris Craig] © Kris Craig/The Providence Journal Middletown, RI, July 13, 2021 - Eric Rueb faces off against 12-year-old scratch golfer, Vincenza "Vinny" Papa of Foster, RI, at Wanumetonomy CC in Middletown. [The Providence Journal / Kris Craig]

As I write this, I still think I should have won — but she never gave me the chance.

a person holding a baseball bat on a field: Vinny Papa follows through on a shot during a match against The Journal's Eric Rueb last Tuesday at Wanumetonomy in Middletown. © Kris Craig/The Providence Journal Vinny Papa follows through on a shot during a match against The Journal's Eric Rueb last Tuesday at Wanumetonomy in Middletown.

The pitch

I got to know Vinny and her older sister, Gianna, as I covered the Rhode Island Golf Association Junior Girls Amateur Championship last year. If you don’t know the Papa sisters, you will soon. Gianna won the Junior Am and, later that summer, was the runner-up at the Women’s State Amateur, a pretty impressive feat considering she was 13 at the time.

Vinny was in the mix at both tourneys, but, at 11, her lack of distance made it tough to compete. She made up for it by being one of the state’s best short-game players — regardless of age or gender — in Rhode Island.

I could have played Gianna, but losing to a 14-year-old who’s starting to pump the ball out to fairways and will probably win the RIIL Girls Golf Championship next spring doesn’t quite blister as much as stepping up to the plate and challenging someone who’s almost a decade younger than my Odyssey putter.

When I emailed Vinny’s father, Paul, to ask if they would be willing to take part in the story, he answered yes almost as soon as I had hit send.

The match was on. Now it was just a matter of where and when.

The location

When I saw that this year’s Women’s State Amateur was at Wanumetonomy, it was the perfect location.

The Middletown course is short (good for me), doesn’t have many trees (also good for me) and requires great touch around the greens as well as a terrific putting stroke (check and check). Thanks to former Metacomet Country Club (RIP) coworker Alex Simeone, I had played the course a couple of times, so I even had some local knowledge. Any edge I could find to beat a 12-year-old, I was looking for it, and, yes, that looks more ridiculous now that I’ve written it.

My friend gave a call to Wanu head pro Bill Maguire, a former URI golfer whom I covered a couple of times during his amateur playing days, and he loved the idea of me getting my brains beaten in by someone who can’t go watch the movie, "Cruella," without a parent.

This was actually going to happen.

a man holding a golf club: Vinny Papa putts on a green at Wanumetonomy Golf Club in Middletown last week. © Kris Craig/The Providence Journal Vinny Papa putts on a green at Wanumetonomy Golf Club in Middletown last week.

Pre-match

I’m a sportsman but not a lunatic, so we needed to handicap the match.

To make myself look as ridiculous as possible, I decided to play Vinny from the same tees. This might sound outrageous, but she’s a plus-1.7 handicap from the forward tees (we don’t call them women’s tees anymore).

My adjusted handicap from the white tees at Wanu is an 8, so I should have been getting at least four shots a side for our match. (We also kept score for individual stroke play.) Since I’m a gentleman — and possessed the ability to hit a 7-iron as long as Vinny hit her longest non-driver club — I played her straight up. In hindsight, that was a mistake.

Another one of my ground rules was that I got a "breakfast ball" off the first tee because I’m not a heathen. After Vinny piped her drive dead down the middle — which became a running theme for the afternoon, as she missed only two fairways — I told her my first swing was a breakfast ball. Vinny asked, “What’s that?”

Vinny's father laughed. Paul told me that, because she’s really only played tournament golf, she didn’t know what a breakfast ball is. I explained it as such:

“On the first hole, I’m going to hit my tee shot. Then when I hit it bad, I’m going to hit another. Then I’m going to play whichever one is better and go from there.”

I promptly shanked both and they ended up within 10 yards of each other. The match was underway.

a group of people sitting around a baseball field: Eric Rueb learned the hard way just how good 12-year-old golfer Vinny Papa is. © Kris Craig/The Providence Journal Eric Rueb learned the hard way just how good 12-year-old golfer Vinny Papa is.

The round

One thing that I was not prepared for was how much of a relentless trash-talker Vinny can be— and I mean that in the best way possible.

It started the night before with some videos on Instagram and continued as the round went on. I enjoyed that because friendly trash-talk on the golf course is probably my second-favorite thing to do. (Swearing is No. 1 but I have a strict "don’t-cuss-around-children" policy).

Another thing I wasn’t prepared for was how much Vinny wanted to kick my 40-year-old behind. She didn’t just want to beat me. I believe she wanted to ruin golf for me forever. It was awesome.

You see, there are competitive people and then there’s Vinny Papa — losing was not an option.

She showed it on No. 1 when I grinded out a bogey. Vinny ran into an awful break in the bunker, left the next one in the sand, then gave herself 12 feet for the halve. I felt pretty good about going 1-up after my awful tee shot, but then she dropped the putt and ripped my heart out of my chest.

That became the No. 2 theme of the afternoon.

Vinny’s inexperience at playing social golf showed on the second hole when I power-yanked my tee shot left. It ended up behind a maintenance truck where the grounds crew was working, 95 yards from the hole. There was a tree maybe 50 yards ahead, but with my prodigious ball flight, it wasn’t in play.

Instead of making the workers stop and move the truck — or worse, hitting it into someone’s skull — I moved my ball right (still in the rough) so everyone would be safe.

I hit my wedge on the green (blind-squirrel adage) while Vinny dumped her second shot in the greenside bunker. She was not impressed with my ruling. I two-putted and went one-up.

She was even more displeased after splitting the fairway on the long third hole and I power-yanked mine left. Vinny had more than 200 yards to the flag and didn’t have enough club to reach. Because I’m a foot taller and some 200 pounds heavier, I flushed a 6-iron on the green, made my par and found myself 2-up.

Probably should have ended things there.

The difference-maker

Why my length didn’t matter against Vinny showed up on the fourth hole. She hit a driver, I hit a 4-hybrid high off the face but we ended up both about 150 yards out. Vinny hit the green. I did not.

This was theme No. 3. I missed my target often. Vinny didn’t miss. She hit one truly bad shot — a boned wedge on the short uphill seventh hole off a tight fairway lie — but the rest were all the same, even if she didn’t always love the result.

Her swing is like butter, more in tempo than a metronome. She didn’t miss the center of the club face. Every ball flew dead straight. It was amazing to watch a kid so young hit it so pure — and not wanting to fight her.

I got my lead back to 2-up after nearly making an ace on the short par-3 fifth hole. That almost turned into a halve when Vinny’s chip shot lipped out. That, too, became a theme for the afternoon.

While I was grinding my face off to make pars and bogeys, Vinny made everything look so easy. She had long approaches to just about every hole, but looked about as concerned as I do wondering if an extra slice of pizza is really too much.

She played within herself and, when she wasn’t hitting those long approaches on the green, followed by a routine two-putt, she chipped them close and made her par. My bogeys were as worthless as my 5-iron against her.

Her putting was the most outrageous thing to watch. Every putt was made with confidence and conviction, the type of fearlessness I advise the hackers I caddie for at TPC Boston to roll the rock with. They never do.

Vinny made putts from 10-20 feet for halves on No. 7, 9 and 14 to go with the dagger on No. 1. She slammed short putts into the hole with little worry about where the ball would go if it didn’t find the cup.

On one stroll up the fairway, I asked her why she hit the ball so hard from so close.

“Because,” she said, “I want them to go in.”

Duh.

Her aggressiveness bit her on No. 10, when she didn’t see the cup was cut toward her with the wind pushing the flag in the same direction, leaving no room for the ball to drop. She banged the putt off the cup and was shocked when it caromed out. I made an all-world bogey for the halve to keep the match even.

We traded wins but remained tied through 14 holes, which was bad for me because traditionally that’s when my old, fat body tires out.

The quirky 15th green gave us both fits as I couldn’t take advantage of Vinny’s first three-putt by missing a 5-footer I didn’t hit hard enough. Should have listened to what the kid said.

On No. 16, I walked in a 15-foot par putt for a halve to extend the match — and, yes, I realize now how ridiculous it is for a 40-year-old man to walk one in on a 12-year-old — but hit a bad tee shot on the par-3 17th and couldn’t get up and down.

Vinny hit her tee shot on the green — of course she did — and rolled to a makable distance. I would have given it to her, but I needed to get the last putt on video. She rolled it dead center. Ballgame.

a young boy wearing a baseball hat: Vincenza “Vinny” Papa of Foster. © Kris Craig/The Providence Journal Vincenza “Vinny” Papa of Foster.

The last shot

For fun, we played the 18th hole from the tips. For me, the 391-yard par-4 was merely a 3-wood and wedge (although I hit a three-quarter nine).

For Vinny, it was the second-longest hole of the day. She hit a good drive and tried to attack the green with a 5-wood that didn’t have enough gas to get there even though there was a bunker directly in her line.

She didn’t care. She hit it solid and ended up in the bunker. I hit mine less than solid and also ended up in the bunker. We both were staring down 4-foot bogey putts.

I’d seen her make those all day, so I gave her the putt, thinking she would do the same. She never said the word. I pulled the flagstick, dropped it and got ready to make my putt.

Then I heard it.

“That’s good,” Vinny said, wearing a smile bigger than her five-stroke victory over me. “I just wanted you to go through all that work.”

Epilogue

It’s really hard for me to have a bad time on a golf course. Playing with someone of Vinny's caliber was a learning experience for me and I’ll tell you what — hearing the one or two “wows” Vinny gave me on my good tee shots made me feel good.

Physically, I was beaten up, but in a good way. Mentally was another story.

On the hour-plus drive home, I was going over the round in my head (like any golfer does) and realized that, despite the 2-and-1 loss, I realized that the match was there for the taking.

But that’s the difference between playing Vinny Papa and Vinny, the papa of three wonderful grandchildren who plays every Thursday at Triggs. That guy makes maybe one or two putts he shouldn’t but hands you a few holes that help you make up for your lack of game.

Vinny Papa doesn’t do that. She doesn’t give you an inch. If you make a mistake, you lose. To beat her, you have to beat her because she’s not going to beat herself.

Of course, this is no different than any other elite golfer. If I were playing Alexis Florio, the reigning women’s state champion, or any of the men who competed at this week’s Rhode Island Amateur, the same thing would have happened.

I know Vinny Papa is an elite golfer. Before we started, I thought I was going to lose but something deep down inside kept saying, “Dude, she’s 12. You can win this.”

I never had a chance.

At the Women’s State Amateur this week, Vinny Papa’s going to end up playing and beating a lot of players much better than myself. She’ll do it when she eventually gets to Ponaganset High School and again wherever she goes to college and who knows after that.

So, I look forward to telling people I played Vinny Papa in a match, straight up, and got to the 17th hole before she closed me out.

Losing never felt so good.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: ALL FORE FUN: Journal's Eric Rueb gets lesson from 12-year-old Vinny Papa

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