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Friday, December 27, 2013

2013: The year of the Open and so much more



   You can’t take a look back at the golf scene in 2013 without recalling the week the world came to Delco for the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club’s East Course, which became a little more historic than it already was.
   It’s been interesting to see some of the year-end golf stories that have appeared in various publications. As exciting as the tournament was, as deserving a champion as Justin Rose was, as noteworthy a co-runnerup as Phil Mickelson was, it has been the membership at Merion and the entire community that has received so much credit for giving up their golf course and their neighborhood, respectively, for a couple of weeks so that the big tent could rise over the great East Course once again.
   The whole thing was such a tremendous experience for me personally, as a former Merion caddy who grew up in that neighborhood that borders the golf course, and professionally.
   We were able to put together an incredible U.S. Open preview section that went to home subscribers of the Daily Times, The Mercury in Pottstown (where I was also a long-time employee before coming home to Delco), the Daily Local News in West Chester, the Times-Herald in Norristown and The Reporter in Lansdale.
   It was a tremendous collaborative effort with representatives from every paper chipping in their talents. Special mention goes to The Mercury’s Steve Moore and sports editor Austin Hertzog, whose design work really made this special section something special.
   I also got to work with my old colleague from The Mercury, Don Seeley, the recently retired sports editor (and wrestling writer extradordinaire). When the section was still in its formative stages, it was mostly The Seel and I batting around ideas. He ended up writing exhaustive histories of both the U.S. Open and of Merion’s East Course.
   A few short weeks later, he was gone, taken much too soon by a heart attack, suffered while finishing a round of golf. It made me extra glad that I had had that chance to work with him one last time on a project that came out so well.
   The runup to the big week was tremendously exciting. I was able to regale regular visitors to my blog with my Media Day round with ESPN’s Chris Berman. A rainy, dreary day turned into a really fun round even though I pretty much hacked it around my favorite golf course in the world.
   There was all that rain in the days leading up to the tournament  and dire predictions that the boys would shoot 20-under par. The old girl held up just fine. The rough was deep, the greens were fast, the pin positions were probably a little too severe.
   The tournament itself was a bit of a blur. A couple hours after the first tee shot was launched, the skies darkened and Mother Nature delivered one more soaking, just in case you didn’t already have enough mud caked on your shoes or boots or whatever you were wearing to navigate through the muck.
   And none of it took the least bit away from the whole experience.
   My primary duty that week was as columnist and while Rose won the tournament, Mickelson was the week’s most compelling character. From his red-eye flight from California, where he had retreated to to get in some practice on a dry golf course and to celebrate his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation,  to his stay at or near the top of the leaderboard most of the tournament, to his stunning final-round eagle at 10, right to the seemingly inevitable runnerup finish – six times he has been a U.S. Open runnerup, it still boggles the mind – Phil was Phil and those of us with column duty that week couldn’t have been more thankful.
   I also got to sneak in a column about the amateurs, as once again, as has so often been the case in the East Course’s illustrious history, amateur players had a measure of success on a golf course that was befuddling many of the game’s best professionals.  Maybe the ghost of Bobby Jones visits whenever there’s an Open there.
   That Michael Kim, who had recently completed his sophomore season at California, had gotten himself in contention during the third round was a good enough story on its own. That he was quick to credit his  Merion caddy LaRue Temple made it all the better for this veteran of many a loop around Hugh Wilson’s brilliant design.
   It was not lost on anyone who knows anything about Merion’s great history that Rose fired in his 4-iron approach shot to the 72nd hole just yards away from the plaque commemorating a similar shot by the legendary Ben Hogan that got him into a playoff at the 1950 Open, a playoff he won, an Open he won less than 18 months after nearly dying in a collision with a bus on Texas highway.
   And how about Mickelson getting off the mat a few short weeks later and winning his first British Open and fifth career major championship with a stunningly brilliant finishing stretch at Muirfield? He had been so deeply disappointed that final day at Merion and yet he turned it around and won an event many figured his game just would never master. And now the only thing separating him from the career Grand Slam? Yup, that event he has been the runnerup in six times, the U.S. Open.
   The major championship season started off with a gutsy Masters victory from Adam Scott, who amazingly became the first Aussie to wear the green jacket. He had let his first major slip away in the Open Championship the previous summer, but he quickly made amends at Augusta.
Jason Dufner had seen a PGA Championship get away from him two summers earlier, but it was the laid-back southerner who lifted the Wanamaker Trophy this time after a brilliant display of shotmaking at Oak Hill in suburban Rochester, N.Y.
   Tiger Woods, while winning five times in some big events, remained majorless for a fifth straight summer, his chase to catch the great Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major professional championships still stuck on 14.
   On the women’s side, Inbee Park dazzled us with her slow tempo and remarkable putting stroke as she claimed the LPGA’s first three major championships.  The women’s game has never been more intriguing and late in the year Stacy Lewis, Suzann Pettersen and youngster Lexi Thompson were all making noise like they had plans to challenge Park in 2014.
   If the U.S. Open at Merion wasn’t enough, the local golf scene brought several major events within easy striking distance of this Delco golf observer.
   They were still taking down the grandstands at Merion when Golf Association of Philadelphia’s Amateur championship teed off at Aronimink Golf Club, the Donald Ross gem in Newtown Township that had played host to the AT&T National in 2010 and 2011. I got a chance to see Michael McDermott, the product of Haverford High, Saint Joseph’s, and Llanerch Country Club and a member at both Merion and Aronimink, put his name on the J. Wood Platt Trophy for the second time in his brilliant career with a 5 and 4 victory over talented Alexander Hicks from the Jersey Shore.
   It’s not often you get to wander around two truly great golf courses like Merion East and Aronimink watching great players playing them in back-to-back weeks, but I got that opportunity this summer and that alone made it a special June.
   On a sweltering July day, a couple of Big 5 standouts, present and past, dueled for a Philadelphia Open title. Brandon Matthews, coming off a standout freshman campaign at Temple, defeated former Saint Joseph’s star Billy Stewart in a four-hole aggregate playoff in the fading daylight at    Waynesborough Country Club.
   It gave me the chance to reintroduce Stewart, who won a Philadelphia Amateur title as a Llanerch Country Club member a couple of weeks after graduating from Malvern Prep a decade ago, to followers of Delco golf. After laboring with mixed success on the Florida mini-tours, Stewart is back in his home area and rededicated to teaching and playing the game he loves.
   As for Matthews, the sky seems to be the limit for a guy I first stumbled upon when he won the PIAA title as a junior at Pittston in 2010.
   There was one last stop on the summer of great golf in Delco as Radnor Valley Country Club and Overbrook Golf Club played host to U.S. Amateur qualifying at the end of July.
   I followed Llanerch’s Steve Seiden around at Radnor Valley as he nailed down a second straight trip to the U.S. Amateur. Then Overbrook got to celebrate as one of its own, rising star Sean Fahey, coming off a standout career at Episcopal Academy, broke the course record at Radnor Valley and earned himself a trip to The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
   Turned out Fahey’s recent Inter-Ac League rival and soon-to- be Dartmouth teammate Scott Jaster, the three-time Haverford School All-Delco, also earned a U.S. Amateur spot in qualifying in New Jersey. I wondered at the time how many scholastic leagues in the country could boast of two U.S. Amateur qualifiers as the Inter-Ac could in Fahey and Jaster.
   Players with Delco ties had me checking the USGA website all year as they earned spots in any number of USGA events. Haverford School senior Cole Berman, recently crowned as the 2012-13 Daily Times Player of the Year, was joined at the U.S. Junior Amateur by Inter-Ac League rival (there goes that Inter-Ac League again) Michael Davis of Malvern Prep and Aronimink and Radnor High All-Delco Carey Bina. Berman made match play before falling in the first round. Before the summer was out, Berman would be named the Golf Association of Philadelphia’s Junior Player of the Year for a second straight year.
   McDermott made match play at the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship before falling in the first round. Overbrook’s ageless Ray Thompson made it all the way to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Senior Amateur before falling to Golf Association of Philadelphia rival Chip Lutz.
   And then, of course, there is Aurora Kan, the 2010 PIAA champion as a senior at Chichester. All the Purdue junior did was reach match play at both the Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship and the U.S. Women’s Amateur. She fell just short of a spot in the quarterfinals at the Women’s Amateur.
   As a sophomore at Purdue Kan helped the Boilermakers finish third at the NCAA Tournament. They were a distant third behind a very talented USC team that won the NCAA title. But Purdue gave the Trojans all they wanted at the NCAA West Regional before falling by a shot. It doesn’t appear anybody has enough talent to deny Southern Cal a second straight NCAA crown, but Kan, who had a strong start to her junior campaign last fall, and the Boilers will likely be playing in the NCAA Tournament when all is said and done next spring.
   At the age of 20, Kan has played in eight USGA events, won a scholastic state title and a state women’s amateur crown and finished 15th individually on a team that finished third in the country at the collegiate level. Kan left open the possibility that she might remain an amateur after college before she left Boothwyn for West Lafayette, Ind. That would make her an intriguing prospect if she were still an amateur when the U.S. Women’s Amateur comes to Delaware County and Rolling Green Golf Club in the summer of 2016.
   Speaking of intriguing prospects, Radnor sophomore Brynn Walker finished fifth in Class AAA at the PIAA Tournament last fall and really took her game up a notch in 2013 when she won the Pennsylvania Junior title.
   And Marple Newtown senior Sam Soeth became Delco’s first male medalist at the PIAA Tournament since Strath Haven’s Conrad Von Borsig in 2004 with his tie for fifth as he capped an outstanding scholastic career.
   This year will always be the year the Open finally returned to Merion’s East Course after a 32-year hiatus. But that memorable week in June wasn’t the only time great golf was being played in this county.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

As a golfer, Jay Sigel is a pretty good mentor



   When semi-retired Daily Times sports writer Harry Chaykun asked me if I wanted to attend the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame Delco Chapter’s fall student-athlete awards luncheon, he knew I would be intrigued by the scheduled speaker, one Jay Sigel, a fixture at Aronimink Golf Club for many years while becoming one of the great American amateur players of the last half of the 20th century before embarking on a successful second career on the Champions Tour.
   It is also didn’t hurt that one of the honorees would be Springfield senior Brian Todaro, who showed a ton of grit in earning a share of third place with Central League rival Sam Soeth of Marple Newtown in a memorable edition of the District One Tournament last fall.
   We had to wait a week because the luncheon was postponed by the second of three winter storms that buffeted the county last week, but Sigel was worth the wait.
   He talked about mentoring and it struck home after each of the eight honorees had, without exception, given credit to their parents, to their coaches, to the administrators of their schools and school districts for any success they had achieved both on and off the field of play.
   Sigel has taken a leadership role in The First Tee of Greater Philadelphia, which at its very heart is a mentoring program. It is, as Sigel pointed out, not a program designed to develop golfers, but rather to develop responsible youngsters who happen to play golf.
   I thought back to a long-ago summer Monday when Sigel showed up at Merion Golf Club’s East Course for a practice round for the next day’s U.S. Amateur qualifier at Merion and Llanerch Country Club. It was probably 1972 or 1973 and Sigel was still a few years away from winning the British Amateur and then two U.S. Amateurs after that and putting together as good a Walker Cup record as any American player ever has.
   He was winning the Pennsylvania Amateur championship, which has traditionally been a stroke-play event, pretty regularly back in those days. I seem to recall hearing a few golf experts sniff that his game would never translate to match play. Boy, did that little theory get disproven.
   I got a chance to carry his bag that day and I didn’t pass up the opportunity to get a close-up look at a player who had a reputation for precision on the golf course.
   We were joined that day be a college player  – perhaps recently graduated, but in my memory he still had a year left – toting his University of Maryland bag. It’s always been quite a personal golf highlight for me to recall that day, Jay Sigel, Buddy Marucci and me walking the East Course at Merion, great golf talk and great golf flowing easily.
   Sigel mentioned at the Hall of Fame luncheon that, as an adult, you can mentor without even knowing you’re doing it, by the way you carry yourself, the way you act. I suspect Marucci, who capped his own stellar amateur career by captaining the U.S. side to a Walker Cup win at Merion in 2009, was seeking some mentoring that day and he most surely found it.
   As a journalist, my path crossed Sigel’s in 1998 at Hartefeld National, where the local PGA Senior Tour (as the Champions Tour was known back then) had moved after starting out at Chester Valley Golf Club. Sigel started Saturday’s second round quietly enough with a par. He eagled the par-5 second and then ripped off seven straight birdies for a front-nine 27, a record for nine holes on the Champions Tour that still stands.
   Even at 9-under through nine holes, he was the same Jay Sigel, calm and focused. He flirted with golf’s magic number, 59, that day before settling for a 62. It was a bit of an adventure, but he won the Bell Atlantic Classic the next day in a playoff.
   I was a high school kid the day I caddied for Sigel in that practice round at Merion. At some point in the round, he asked if I wanted to get carry his bag in the qualifying round the next day.
   “You can do better,” I replied, knowing that there were plenty of Merion loopers who knew the course as well, and in many cases, better than I did.
   “No, you’ll be fine,” he said.
   So I did caddy for him in the qualifying round and it was a great experience. It occurred to me as Sigel spoke to the eight student-athletes who were honored at Tuesday’s luncheon at Barnaby’s on MacDade Boulevard, that I had received a little mentoring from one of the game’s truly great players as a youngster myself.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ridley, Strath Haven,Upper Darby cited for sportsmanship



   It’s been a couple of weeks, but the last post had the All-Central selections, but failed to include an item under the final standings on the second page of that report.
   That would be the sportsmanship winners, which were Ridley, Strath Haven and Upper Darby. That’s a credit to their coaches, Jeff Lubas, Kevin Kochersperger and Jon McGarry, respectively, and to the players. Sportsmanship is important in every sport, but maybe even a little more so on the golf course, where it’s impossible for the coach to keep an eye on all his players at the same time.
   In case followers of scholastic golf were looking for an All-Delco team, they will have to wait until the spring. Although, the vast majority of the teams play in the fall now – it wasn’t all that long ago that the Catholic League and the Inter-Ac League boys teams still teed it up in the spring – but the Inter-Ac girls still play in the spring. Since the All-Delco golf team has always included boys and girls, it’s only fair that we wait until the spring to make sure the Inter-Ac girls get their due.
   There will be a couple of interesting story lines for the Inter-Ac girls in the spring, too. The Notre Dame girls will carry a 32-match Inter-Ac League unbeaten streak into the campaign as the Irish have swept their league competition in each of the last four seasons. And Agnes Irwin eighth-grader Kaitlyn Lees, the individual Inter-Ac champion as a seventh-grader last spring, continued to show improvement all last summer and into the fall. 

Purdue’s Hernandez, Reto headed for LPGA Tour

   In following the progress of Aurora Kan, Chichester’s 2010 PIAA champion, at Purdue, you can’t help but notice some of her talented teammates that helped the Boilermakers finish third at last spring’s NCAA Tournament.
   Three members of that team were competing in the final stage of the LPGA’s Q-School, a 90-hole marathon held at two courses in Daytona Beach, Fla., although two of them maintained their amateur status.
   In addition, two members of Purdue’s 2010 NCAA championship team – that was the season before Kan arrived in West Lafayette, Ind. – Maria Hernandez, who led the Boilermakers to that NCAA title by winning the individual crown, and Maude-Aimee LeBlanc, also had strong showings in Daytona Beach.
   Hernandez, a native of Spain, had the best finish of all of the former Boilermakers in the field as she had rounds of 71, 71, 72, 67 and 71 for a 352 total that left her in a tie for eighth and enabled her to retain her full playing privileges on the LPGA Tour in 2014.
   She’ll be joined on the tour by Paula Reto, a veteran of the 2010 NCAA title team and a teammate of Kan’s for two years. A native of South Africa, Reto had steady rounds of 72, 71, 72, 67 and 70 for a 353 total that left her in a tie for 12th.
   LeBlanc, a native of Canada, had rounds of 71, 73, 73, 71 and 71 and earned limited status on the LPGA Tour as she finished in a tie for 31st. The top 19 earned full playing privileges.
   Laura Gonzalez-Escallon, a native of Belgium, retained her amateur status while playing the full five rounds of Q-School. Gonzalez-Escallon had rounds of 76, 70, 76, 69 and 76. I’m not sure how it works for her, but she likely earned status on the developmental Symetra Tour if she decides to play professionally next year.
   Another teammate of Kan’s last spring, Kishi Sinha, of India, also competed in the Q-School, but failed to make the cut for the final round. Like Gonzalez-Escallon, Sinha retained her amateur status.
Numa Gulyanamitta of Thailand, another veteran of Purdue’s 2010 NCAA title team, also competed in the Q-School, but, like Sinha, failed to make the cut for the final round.
   That makes six members of Purdue teams from 2009-10 to 2012-13 who reached the final stage of LPGA Q-School. That’s a pretty strong showing.