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LI pros Danny Balin and Jason Caron relish playing in PGA Championship at Bethpage Black

Jason Caron of the Mill River Club drives

Jason Caron of the Mill River Club drives on the 18th hole  during the second round of the New York State Open golf tournament at Bethpage Black on July 18, 2018. Credit: Peter Frutkoff

Club pros who compete in major championships have been called the ultimate underdogs because they are playing against elite tour pros on the latter’s turf. The whole experience can be challenging, stressful and, for Danny Balin and Jason Caron at the PGA Championship next week, quite comfortable.

The two Long Island pros will get to play in a major on Long Island, boosted by their families, friends, members and course knowledge. There was extra exhilaration for both of them Wednesday, when they qualified during the national club pro tournament, knowing that they will be playing at Bethpage Black.

“It’s great that it’s in my backyard, great that it’s my favorite golf course in the world, great that I won two New York State Opens there and great that I know the golf course like the back of my hand,” said Balin, who is in his first months as head pro at Fresh Meadow Country Club in Lake Success.

Caron, the head pro at Mill River Club in Oyster Bay, played a combined nine years on the PGA Tour and the circuit now known as the Web.com Tour and made it into one major championship during that time: the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage. “Which is kind of ironic,” he said the other day. “I played well that week. I finished 30th, so we’ll see where it goes.”

Earning one of the 20 club-pro spots in the PGA Championship is the dream of every professional who spends his days giving lessons, running outings and stocking inventory in the pro shop. Incentive for Long Island pros was off the chart this year, as the PGA is making its first Nassau-Suffolk appearance in 93 years and the first ever at Bethpage.

Reality hit Caron when he landed his final approach shot safely on the last green Wednesday in Bluffton, S.C. He remembers thinking, “Wow, I’m actually going to be able to play in a major again, at home, able to sleep in my own bed, playing in front of the members. It’s going to be great for everybody, especially for my family.

“I’m sure it’s going to be more overwhelming than I think it is right now,” said the pro whose club is a stone’s throw from where Tiger Woods has docked his yacht for the PGA. “I have a feeling it’s going to be pretty awesome.”

Caron was encouraging and reassuring when his wife Liz, a former LPGA tour golfer and now teaching pro at Mill River, qualified for the Women’s PGA. Now she gets to return the favor. It is believed that the Carons are the first wife-husband team to make both PGAs since the PGA of America added a women’s championship in 2015.

Liz will be among his supporters, along with their two daughters, aged six and two. “I think they’ll be able to come out both days — I hope it’s four days,” Caron said, hopeful of making the cut on a course where he finished sixth in the State Open last year.

Balin loved Bethpage Black even before he won the 2012 and 2013 New York State Opens there. “It’s straightforward. It’s not tricked up in any way but it’s brutally hard from tee to green. It’s long, the fairways are narrow and it’s difficult,” he said. “I drive the ball pretty straight. I don’t hit it very long, compared to the guys out there on tour. But I can find the fairways and that’s huge at a place like Bethpage.”

Not that his game is good only locally. Balin played four years on the PGA Tour Latin America and won the 2015 Stella Artois Open in Guatemala. He said his experience helped him finish second in the club pro event this past week, after he had not had time to prepare. He was too busy getting settled at Fresh Meadow — a job “I just couldn’t pass up” — to play more than three or four rounds.

He is looking forward to hearing the yells and applause from members at Fresh Meadow and the clubs at which he served as an assistant pro. Balin has played golf in many states, many countries. There is no place like the Black.

“Bethpage is the mecca of public golf,” he said. “Not growing up playing [much] golf, not being a country club kid, when I did play golf, it was at a public course. Bethpage brings everybody together: country club golfers, inner city kids, public golfers. It’s a special place. And it’s a lot of fun.”

ACES

Bill Newsome, Wheatley Hills GC, third hole, 176 yards, 4-hybrid

Jerry Wood (of Huntington), McArthur GC, Hobe Sound, Fla., 13th hole, 148 yards, 6-iron

Noah Fleschner, Lawrence Y&CC, 14th hole, 119 yards, 9-iron

Pat Fahey, Brookville CC, seventh hole, 149 yards, 7-iron

Dan Abbondandolo, Brookville CC, seventh hole, 174 yards, 7-iron

Joe Burchell, Middle Bay, sixth hole, 137 yards, pitching wedge

Jerry O’Shea (of Manhasset), Vanderbilt CC, Naples, Fla., eighth hole, 118 yards, 8-iron

Gerard Palladino, Robert Moses GC, first hole, 90 yards, 8-iron

Gale Campisi, Swan Lake GC, 13th hole, 127 yards, 5-wood

Gary Owens, Blue Ridge GC, second hole, 150 yards, pitching wedge

Ronnie Rubin, Rock Hill G&CC, fourth hole, 120 yards, 5-hybrid

George Liberman, Spring Lake GC, 13th hole, 127 yards, 7-iron

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