Six years later, the chills from that unexpected day in Northborough are impossible to shake, which is just fine with Herbie Aikens. What he’d like is to experience them again.
Walking to his car at Juniper Hill Golf Course, Aikens had just qualified for the 2006 US Amateur Public Links Championship, his first successful entry of a US Golf Association event. At least Aikens thinks he was walking; he remembers only the rush of euphoria that covered him, symbolizing what at the time was the highlight of his competitive golf career, which had begun a few years earlier.
“It was the most unbelievable feeling, having chills throughout my body, simply ecstatic that I had made it,” Aikens said. “It was so unexpected. I remember thinking, ‘I want this feeling again.’ To this day, I still have never gotten it.”
Soon, perhaps. Aikens, a 30-year-old from Kingston, has qualified for his third US Amateur Publinx, as it’s commonly known, and second straight. It’s part of a run that’s seen him get through the qualifying stage and advance to four straight national amateur events conducted by the USGA. Three came last year, when Aikens competed in the US Amateur Publinx, the US Amateur, and the US Mid-Amateur, open to non-professionals at least 25 years of age.
Known by many for his success locally, Aikens, by competing in three USGA events in 2011 and at least one this year, is beginning to establish a national reputation: He’s tall (6 feet 6 inches), athletic (basketball was his first love), and obviously, talented.
“Because he hits the ball so high, his shots are so receptive into greens, especially on par 5s, and long par 4s and par 3s, which gives him a tremendous advantage,” said Ryan Riley, the reigning Massachusetts Amateur champion, who has partnered with Aikens to win three Massachusetts Four-Ball titles (2009-11). “I think it’s why he excels at these USGA events. The way they set the courses up, with the greens being so firm and the length stretched out, I think it suits his game a little bit more.
“To get someone who can hit it with length, and hit it with accuracy, then on top of that roll in some long putts, it’s a recipe for success.”
Aikens has never been afraid to dream big. It’s evident in his work life, stemming from a brief, failed stint working for a golf club manufacturer in La Quinta, Calif., and fleeting thoughts of opening a smoothie bar. But who doesn’t make mistakes when they’re 20? Not long after, still just 20, Aikens founded his own electrical company, following the chosen trade of many of his family members.
Barely 10 years later, Aikens’s company, Lighthouse Electrical Contracting Inc., based in Rockland, has nearly 40 employees and annual gross sales approaching $10 million.
“Started small, got really lucky, met some amazing people along the way who made it a lot easier for me, that’s for sure,” Aikens said. “It was a natural fit, now I feel like I’m where I belong. I wasn’t comfortable before, but I think I found my place.”
The golf course has been welcoming to Aikens, as well. The interest in the game was there, as was the skill. The means from a successful business career allow Aikens to work with an instructor in Florida once a year – he also credits John Tuffin, the head professional at Pinehills, where Aikens plays – and map out a tournament schedule that ventures well beyond the Bay State. He’s qualified for six USGA events (2006 Publinx, 2009 Mid-Amateur, 2011 Publinx, Amateur, and Mid-Amateur, 2012 Publinx), and will make his debut in the North & South Amateur at Pinehurst next week.
Sometimes, the competitive path requires difficult choices. In order to play in the US Publinx – in Midway, Utah, July 9-14 – Aikens will have to miss the 104th Massachusetts Amateur, the state’s signature amateur event, which he has never won.
“I’m not trying to bypass the state by any means, because there’s some amazing golfers in Massachusetts, and I need to prove myself here probably first before the national level,” Aikens said. “But it just seems like I’m trying to do both at the same time.”
To help with that, Aikens has sought advice from those who have done both, including Frank Vana, the nine-time state player of the year who has played in 27 USGA tournaments. Aikens used a recent practice round the two shared for the Northeast Amateur as his personal fact-finding mission.
“Poor guy, I hit him with about 900 questions,” Aikens said. “But I figured if I’m going to ask anybody in the state, it’s going to be him.
“He gave me a lot of comfort, because I was kind of freaking out, like, ‘I haven’t done it yet, what’s going on, what do I have to do to win?’ He really just kind of patted me on the back and said, ‘Calm down, keep putting yourself in position, don’t stress out,’ and that was some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten in my golf career. I was very appreciative of it, because there’s no greater champion in Massachusetts golf than Frank Vana.”
Vana has also faced the dilemma of playing in a national event that might coincide with a state tournament. Never an easy decision.
“It’s a tough call, but as I told him, you want to get to the highest rung you can get to, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll make it back to those [USGA events],” Vana said. “He’s on this streak, which is great, and you want to keep building on that. You kind of need to take advantage of the top rung when you can, and looking ahead at the big goal. There’s going to be a couple little hurdles in there every once in a while.”
The Mass. Am will be played without Aikens, but he’ll be striving for something greater, an opportunity that comes along only three times for someone in his position.
We mentioned his ability to dream big?
“My goal is to play in the Masters as an amateur,” Aikens said. “It’s hard, because I haven’t won a [Massachusetts] Am or a [Massachusetts] Open yet, and I need to learn how to win.
“You only get three chances a year to play in the Masters, you’ve got to win one of the three US Amateurs (Publinx, Amateur, Mid-Amateur) to get into the Masters. I just can’t turn that down.”