WALPOLE - As soon as Antonio Grillo decided to pass on a career as a professional golfer, he started playing better golf. Now he has a chance to win the Massachusetts Open, against a field dominated by some of the best professionals in the area.
Grillo, a recent Harvard graduate, shot his second consecutive 1-under-par 70 at Walpole Country Club, and heads into Thursday’s final round of the 103d Mass Open alone in third, four shots behind Michael Ballo (69), who leads Mark Stevens (69) by one.
The 22-year-old Grillo is the low amateur, but he’s positioned himself to do something that hasn’t been accomplished since 1999, when amateur Kevin Quinn captured the Mass Open.
“The only difference is they’re playing for money and I’m not, which could put a little more pressure on them,’’ Grillo said. “I’m still competing, but there’s a little less pressure on myself as far as performance goes. I think it’s fun. I’m looking forward to the competitiveness. Hopefully, I can keep up.’’
Grillo might mean that literally. A short hitter by admission, Grillo has taken advantage of a layout that measures 6,625 yards and features plenty of doglegs, preventing longer hitters from bombing driver off the tee on many holes. Not a problem for Grillo, who has routinely hit driver this week and found plenty of fairways.
A four-year varsity player for the Crimson, Grillo made the decision last fall that pro golf wasn’t for him. His plan: squeeze in one more summer of competitive golf, then hopefully use his economics degree to secure suitable employment in the fall.
“I’m trying to go into financial sales, possibly looking into some start-ups,’’ Grillo said. “It was a great decision, I’m definitely enjoying golf right now and hopefully will have a really fun summer.’’
He’s off to a fun start, carding five birdies in each round and making the cut at the Mass Open for the first time in his third appearance. Two holes on Wednesday stood out: He opened his round by making a birdie on the uphill, par-4 10th, then holed a 15-foot putt for bogey on No. 5 after a bad bunker shot.
Grillo wasn’t able to play much golf in the weeks leading up to the tournament, with the conclusion of college. But that’s not to say he came here without any confidence.
“I’m actually in a really good place in my swing where I know what I’m doing, it’s an easy move, and the ball tends to go straight when I look up,’’ Grillo said. “I hadn’t gotten to play much, so actually posting two rounds under par I’m thrilled with.’’
Ballo, a 23-year-old from Stamford, Conn., followed his opening 67 with a 2-under 69 to finish 36 holes at 6 under. He’s looking for his first win as a professional, and would love for it to come at the Mass Open, one year after he squandered a late lead and finished second by a stroke.
“The Mass Open is definitely the one I have really focused on this summer,’’ Ballo said. “I am happy to be in the position I am in.’’
Stevens isn’t complaining, either. The 25-year-old from Concord, N.H., already has two victories as a pro, taking last year’s Cape Cod Open and Rhode Island Open. He’s making his third start in the Mass Open; he tied for 28th in his 2010 debut, then tied for ninth last year. He’ll start the final round in second.
“It’s obviously a great position to be in,’’ Stevens said. “I try not to look at anything more than that. It’s not a 36-hole tournament, it’s a 54-hole tournament, so I’ve still got to play 18 good holes and see where it puts me.’’