By JOHN GORALSKI
Ed Fernandes was just five years old when his father walked him out the back door and onto the fairway of the former Patton Brook Country Club. He remembers studying his father’s every move, as he positioned the golf ball about 20 yards from the green.
His dad barked a few tips, lined up the shot, and chipped it perfectly into the hole.
“Is that all there is to it, Dad?” the young Fernandes asked his stunned father, and they both broke out in laughter.
More than four decades have passed, but that story of his first golf lesson still gets brought out at family parties. It still draws a laugh, and it still seems like the fitting start to Fernandes’ golf career—a career that is still going strong.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Fernandes was the youngest in a very athletic family. His father was a professional baseball player in the Cardinals organization. His oldest brother, Steve—Eddie calls him “my idol as a little boy”—was inducted into the first class of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame as the town’s first star wrestler. His brother Joe was inducted as a member of the championship wrestling team, and his sister Deanna was a member of a hall of fame softball team.
Sure, Eddie picked golf, but did anyone really ever doubt his success?
“We were a very athletic family. My dad says that we have good Levis—good jeans,” he said with a laugh. “It starts with the genetics, but if you don’t work at it and set goals, nobody’s going to give it to you. My dad always said that, if you want something you have to go out and get it. You work and you work and you work. When you finally feel that you are where you wanted to be, you work even more.”
Fernandes fell in love during that first lesson. Soon, he gave up baseball to focus on golf. Yankees games were replaced with PGA golf coverage, and he’d spend hours in the back yard trying to emulate the swings he saw on TV. By the time he was 14 years old, Fernandes had already finished a round at even par.
“A lot of hours went into practicing when I was a kid. I’d drop my book bag, grab my clubs and a quick snack, and walk out the back door to the golf course to keep practicing. I’d chip and putt for hours until it got dark. I can remember hitting balls in the dark, and not seeing where it landed,” he said. “You have to put the work in and the dedication. You have to put in the blood, sweat, and tears. Nobody ever pushed me into it. It was just in my blood.”
Robbie Labritz, a neighborhood friend and a future teammate on the high school team, would join him on the local links, and the two would play long past sunset until their parents would finally summon them home.
“Everyday, before school or after school, we’d meet up. We’d meet right off the bus at Patton Brook Country Club, and we’d play until dark,” said Labritz. “Every day. It was a fun rivalry. We’d bet golf balls, tees, clubs, and maybe a few bucks here and there as kids, and we’d grind each other to the stone.”
The hard work paid off. By the time Fernandes reached the high school, he was already in varsity condition. As a sophomore, he worked his way into the top five as the team rallied into the top 10. As a junior, he asserted himself at the top of the state competition and took the team with him.
Scouts were talking about seasoned duffers from the shoreline junior leagues, but it didn’t take long for Fernandez to start dominating the conversation. It just sort of clicked for the Southington star.
“At that time there weren’t many junior tournaments,” said former Blue Knight golf coach Ed Malczyk. “So he sort of came out of nowhere. He was a tall, skinny kid that grew even more in high school. I guess you could say that he came out of nowhere because there really wasn’t a lot of competition for kids at that time.”
In just three years of high school, Fernandez collected 55 individual wins during dual meets, quad meets, and high school tournaments. It culminated in his junior season as he out-scored every opponent but one in the regular season. Fernandez made it look easy on game day, but that’s because of the amount of hours he spent honing his game between meets.
“He was a constant practicer. Every now and then, I had to keep reminding him about school work,” Malczyk said with a laugh. “He practiced a lot. During his junior year, he started using a lob wedge. It’s probably a 60-degree wedge, and he really perfected it. He was pretty long off the tee, but I think it was really around the greens that got him into the scoring. He was able to save par a lot on almost anything he missed.”
That point was driven home at the state meet when Malczyk, a marshal on the 12th hole, saw Fernandez bounding onto the fairway with a wide grin. When his coach asked about his day, Fernandez told him how he had just driven a ball into the water at the previous hole…but he still managed to score par.
“You don’t want to ask a whole lot of questions when they go by you because you want them to concentrate,” said the coach, “but when he went by I knew that we were doing well.”
Staples was the favorite at the meet. Southington wasn’t even in the top four, but the Knights were leading at the turn and, when Fernandes lit up the back nine, they surged to the top of the standings. Fernandes’ putt on the final green clinched the only sub-par performance of the day.
He paced the Knights to their program’s second state title and, with a 1-under-par 71, the lanky junior became Southington’s first individual state champion.
“It felt amazing. When I sunk that putt, I didn’t know if I had won individually. I knew I was going to be close,” he said. “After all the hard work and all the hours and thousands of balls that I hit—not only for myself but to help the team win a state championship—was so exhilarating. It felt so good to be able to bring home a state title for the Town of Southington.”
For the first time, golf was the focus of conversations around town. Football, baseball, and softball were actually put on the back burner so that sports fans could revel in the victory. Town officials proclaimed June 22, 1987 as “Southington High School Golf Team Day,” and Fernandes was recognized, along with his teammates, for their efforts on the links.
“We had such a good team,” said Fernandes. “We knew that there was no reason why we couldn’t go out there and do it. We could always shoot par or under par on any given day. That day, we did. We played well enough to win the state title. We were an underdog, but I don’t think we should have been. We only lost one match the whole year. I think I only lost one, too.”
The success started to draw scouts, and it didn’t take long for the offers to start pouring in. A dozen division one programs showed interest in the Southington swinger. He received offers from Purdue, Florida Southern, and a number of southern colleges where golf is a year-round pursuit, but Fernandes decided to stay home and play for Central Connecticut State University (CCSU).
It was a decision that he would never regret.
Once again, it didn’t take long to rise to the top. He opened the 1989 season with a victory in the two-day West Point Invitational. At the end of the season, he went 6-under through three rounds to claim the ECAC conference title at Bethpage Golf Course in New York.
It was no surprise when Golfweek Magazine named Fernandes as the National Division One Player of the Month in November 1989. He beat out future PGA star Phil Mickelson, a standout at Arizona State University.
“That’s kind of when I knew that I could compete,” he said. “We all sort of knew who Phil Mickelson was from the time he was 14 or 15. If you can be mentioned in the same breath as someone with his talent, it’s pretty special.”
Fernandes was far from finished. Over four years at CCSU, he scrambled for four straight all-conference nominations. Four times, he was named to the all-New England roster, and that was a first for the New Britain school. He was named as Conference Player of the year in 1991 and 1992 after scoring back-to-back conference titles, and he paced the Blue Devils to the program’s first top-20 finish.
“That was huge for a cold weather, northeast school to be in the top 20,” he said. “We all pushed each other, and we all wanted to beat each other. It’s an individual sport, but when you play as part of a team you know that, if you do well, the team has the potential to do well.”
It was no surprise when Fernandes suddenly turned pro in the summer of 1992. After all, he had tamed the high school competition. He had perfected his game in college, and he was already being courted by big-name sponsorships.
Over the next 12 years, Fernandes was a regular on the leader board, winning 25 mini-tour events. He was invited to the PGA Tour Qualifying tournament five times and advanced to the second stage twice.
His best chance came in 2004 when Fernandes swept through the season with a 68.34 stroke average, winning seven straight mini-tour events and advancing to the second stage of Q-School. He was winning the first stage after day one (66) and cruised through the next three (71, 72, 70) to get into the second round. Then…he went cold.
“When you get that hot streak, you just want to keep riding it. For two months, I played some phenomenal golf,” he said. “The second stage was about six weeks after the first stage. I practiced, but sometimes you go through periods where you’re just not as sharp. I just didn’t play well. You have to shoot something like eight under over the four days, and I just didn’t make it.”
After 12 years of minor league golf, Fernandes had enough. Despite the protests of his pregnant wife, and his friends, family, and fans, Fernandes walked away from the tour. For 10 years, fans waited hopefully. Finally, his name popped up again.
At 43 years old, Fernandes walked to the tee at the 2014 Remax World Long Drive Championship in Mesquite, Nev. and launched his way into the finals with a flurry of long drives, including a 413-yard blast that sparked the crowd.
His re-emergence in the golf world didn’t surprise his former high school teammate. “He didn’t always have the greatest golf swing, but he could always hit it long,” said Labritz. “Eddie was a fast twitcher. He could pitch really fast. He could run really fast. He was tall and skinny, like me. He always reached his hands really high when he hit the golf ball. I think he tried to reach the sky, and that gave him a lot of leverage. Then, he’d use that fast-twitch body to really pound the ball. I think that separated him up against the other guys.”
And it still does. Once again Fernandes is in the spotlight, swinging clubs at charity events around Chicago and onto the small screen during a long drive episode on the Golf Channel and NBC. Fernandes is climbing the world rankings again. He’s cracked the top 40, and this time he thinks he’ll reach his ultimate goal.
Members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee certainly won’t bet against him. It was no surprise that they selected Fernandes as a member of the Class of 2015.
“We’ve had only two individuals that have won the Division I tournament, and he was the first,” said Malczyk. “Then, he went on to a division one college and became an incredible player there, and then you have to look at everything he did after college…Those accomplishments put him above just about everyone else.”
“It’s very humbling when you see all the athletes that have come out of Southington,” Fernandes said. “It’s such a tradition-rich town. We love our sports, and it’s such a competitive town. We have a winning tradition, and when you grow up that way it just gets passed down year to year and generation to generation.”
To comment on this story or to contact Observer editor John Goralski, email him at email@example.com.