NEW YORK, NEW YORK | Perhaps no one is looking forward to this week’s Met Amateur as much as Joe Saladino.
For one thing, the tournament is being played at the Piping Rock Club, located just down the road from where he grew up on Long Island’s North Shore, and Saladino knows the Charles Blair Macdonald course well.
Another factor is that Saladino is on a kind of a competitive roll. The Metropolitan Golf Association named him Player of the Year in 2010, after he had won four local tournaments and made it to match play in both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Mid-Amateur Championships. And the dark-haired, 31-year-old has already had a very good 2011, winning the Long Island Amateur as well as the prestigious Richardson Invitational.
Then, there is the simple matter of desire to take the area’s biggest amateur, the Met Amateur, in which Saladino finished second in 2008.
“This is a tournament I really want to win,” he says.
Saladino has won a lot of tournaments ever since he took up golf as a 14-year-old, playing and practicing as often as he could after his parents, who ran a Long Island catering hall, joined the Huntington Country Club. The youngest of four children, he was breaking 80 regularly at 16. And when he was 18 years old, he made the golf team at St. John’s University in New York.
“I just fell in love with the game,” he says. “I loved being around the people. I loved being out on a golf course. I also knew pretty quickly that I wanted to try and become a good player.”
Saladino was a very good player for the Johnnies, and his teammates included Andrew Svoboda, who dominated Met Area play for a number of years before joining the Nationwide Tour. After graduating, Saladino gave the mini-tours a try, playing in Florida for six months. “But I was out of my league,” he recalls. “I didn’t have the game, and I didn’t like the lifestyle that came with traveling all the time.”
Once Saladino regained his amateur status, he slowly but surely worked his way to the top of the New York golfing heap. His first big win was the Long Island Amateur in 2007, and his game only got better with the confidence that victory produced.
As a result, Saladino started doing well in the historic invitationals contested in and around New York. And then he began winning some of them. Like the Havemeyer Invitational and the Hochster Memorial. The Nassau Invitational, too, which Saladino captured while setting a competitive course-record 63. The MGA first named him Player of the Year after the 2008 season. And he then began making his mark on a national level, qualifying for five U.S. Amateurs and two Mid-Ams.
Saladino credits a large part of his success to work he has done with Jim Smoot, the head professional at Huntington, and also Darrell Kestner, the pro at Deepdale. But Saladino also attributes the gains to his golf fitness, a not-so-surprising by-product of his opening a golf-centric fitness center in New York City in 2006, called Drive 495, with his brother Don.
“A lot of tournaments are marathons, and you need to play seven rounds over four days to win the whole thing,” he says. “Being fit helps me get through those grinds physically, and it also helps me mentally when I feel so strong after a long day on the course.”
Saladino looks as if he spends a fair amount of time working out at Drive 495 (when he’s not handling his usual role as chief administrator). And he has found that it not only enhances his game during the competitive season, when he plays as many as 15 tournaments, but also when he shuts down for the winter.
“I do not touch a golf club for five months,” he says. “Even in here, with all the simulators and hitting bays we have. But I keep working my golf muscles, which means I do not have to re-train them when I start playing again in the spring.”
As much as he loves golf, Saladino relishes the time he takes off.
“Playing competitively demands a lot, and I find the break as well as the pleasure I derive from my work at Drive 495, and working in the game of golf gives me great balance,” he says.
“Do I miss the competition and the camaraderie sometimes?” he asks. “Sure. But I get pretty good doses of both from playing in a hockey league during the winter. In many ways, it’s a lot like golf. We play, and then we hang out and talk over a few beers.”
Saladino has steadily elevated his game, and he wants to keep that going.
“I do want to get better,” he says. “I played in the Northeast Amateur this year, and I like seeing how I do in events like that. One goal is to qualify for a U.S. Open. That would be very special.”
And as Saladino is quick to admit, so would a win at the Met Am.