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Saturday, June 11, 2016

It's something special when BMW Philadelphia Amateur is played at Merion

   There was a little more buzz than usual surrounding the qualifiers this spring for the BMW Philadelphia Amateur championship.
   It’s been around as long as the U.S. Open, so it’s got a ton of tradition and it’s the premier event on the Golf Association of Philadelphia calendar each year, so all the top amateurs want to be a part of it. But the little extra about this year’s BMW Philadelphia Amateur is the site, Merion Golf Club’s historic East Course, where the ghosts of Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan regularly knock it around because, well, they had a couple of big wins there.
   It was only three years ago that the Merion membership and the entire Philadelphia golfing community defied the notion that Merion East was no longer a valid test for the U.S. Open, that the Ardmore section of Haverford Township lacked the necessary infrastructure to put on such a big event.
   Well, Justin Rose smashed a 4-iron approach to the 18th green from nearly the same spot that Hogan hit his famous 1-iron 63 years earlier and got a hard-earned par to win the Open with a 1-over 281 total. And the whole thing was pulled off flawlessly, despite some epic rain the week of the Open that tested players, fans and tournament officials.
   It has been a long time since the East Course, designed by Hugh Wilson with some finishing touches from Merion’s first greenskeeper, one William Flynn, has played host to the Philadelphia Amateur. The last time the event was held there was 1954 when GAP Hall of Famer John Dyniewski defeated N. Harper Steward, 4 and 3, for the first of his three Philly Am titles.
   So it will be a special occasion when the top amateurs in the Philadelphia area tee it up in qualifying Monday at Merion’s East Course and Philadelphia Country Club, which once hosted a U.S. Open itself, one that Sam Snead probably cursed to his grave.
   The 116th BMW Philadelphia Amateur, like the 115 that preceded it, will be a grind. The field will play 36 holes Monday, competing for 32 berths in match play. There will be two rounds of match play Tuesday to reduce the field to eight players. The quarterfinal and semifinal matches are scheduled for Wednesday. The two survivors get a couple of days off before Saturday’s scheduled 36-hole final.
   The sole survivor a year ago at nearby Llanerch Country Club was Cole Berman, a two-time Inter-Ac League champion at The Haverford School and a junior at Georgetown. Berman, representing Philadelphia Cricket Club, met his old Inter-Ac rival Michael Davis, a former Malvern Prep standout and a junior at Princeton, in the final at Llanerch.
   Berman, who helped the Hoyas capture the Big East title and earn a berth in an NCAA regional at the Vanderbilt Legends Club in Franklin, Tenn. this spring, claimed a 6 and 4 victory over Davis to win his first Philadelphia Amateur title and add his name to the J. Wood Platt Trophy.
   Berman has played Merion before and, in his role as a spotter for ESPN/NBC on the 11th hole at the 2013 Open, shared a fist bump with Phil Mickelson after Mickelson holed out for eagle at No. 10 in the final round.
   “I’ve been fortunate enough to have played Merion a lot,” the 20-year-old Berman told the GAP website. “I’m really excited to play in another tournament there – one that means a lot to me. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to since last year’s (BMW) Philadelphia Amateur ended.”
   Berman was a three-time GAP Junior Player of the Year, securing the last of those awards by winning his first GAP major, the 2014 Patterson Cup at Tavistock Country Club just before heading to Washington D.C. for his freshman year at Georgetown.
   Berman will be paired in the match-play qualifying with another former champion, Conrad Von Borsig, who won the 2009 Philadelphia Amateur at Stonewall. Von Borsig this year joined Berman among the deep stable of talent at the Cricket Club.
   A perennial Philadelphia Amateur favorite is Michael McDermott, a two-time winner. In the week following the 2013 Open at Merion, McDermott won his second Philly Am title at Aronimink Golf Club, one of his home courses. Another of his home courses is Merion, so you know McDermott, a five-time winner of the William Hyndman III Player of the Year award, will be up for this.
   “It’s such a luxury to play in GAP tournaments,” the 41-year-old McDermott told the GAP website. “They’re always at such great courses, but this year in particular is special because Merion doesn’t host a tournament all that often.
   “Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Lee Trevino, Justin Rose – they’re all people who have won competitions at Merion. It’s a totally different scale, but it would be a nice list to join. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of winner Merion brings out. Nobody’s going to win with their ‘B’ game, for sure.”
   Last year’s Philly Am at Llanerch, while no longer a home course for McDermott, was played at the course he grew up on. And it featured an epic second-round match between McDermott and Jeff Osberg, who plays out of Huntingdon Valley Country Club, but who was a member at Llanerch for a while.
   McDermott pulled off a 2-up victory in the match before falling in the quarterfinals to Davis in a thriller that went to the 20th hole. McDermott and the 31-year-old Osberg, who won the Philly Am two years ago at White Manor Country Club, teamed up for the recent U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship at Winged Foot Golf Club, but failed to make match play.
   They are paired in the same group for qualifying Monday.
   There is nothing quite like Philly Am qualifying day. Overbrook Golf Club’s Ray Thompson, who made a remarkable run to the semifinals at White Manor two years ago at age 72, has a starting time. So does Overbrook’s David Colleran Jr., who helped Radnor win a PIAA Class AAA team title as a freshman last fall. Another entrant who just completed his freshman year of high school, Episcopal Academy’s Michael Zeng of Applecross Country Club, is in the field.
   It was qualifying day at Llanerch a year ago when I first met Chris Fuga, a member of the last graduating class at St. Pius X in Pottstown and a member of the Coker College golf team in South Carolina.
   Less than a year removed from a bone marrow transplant after being diagnosed with leukemia in the spring of 2014, Fuga shot 73 at Rolling Green Golf Club and a 1-under 69 at Llanerch and finished third in the qualifying.  He reached the semifinals before falling to Berman, 2 and 1.
   All the while, the cancer was coming back. He got another bone marrow transplant and was on the road to recovery again when an infection hit him that his body, in its weakened state, couldn’t fight off. He died Oct. 30, a little more than four months after his inspirational run to the Philly Am semifinals.
   So yeah, I’ll be thinking about Jones and Hogan and Nicklaus and Trevino and Dottie Porter as I wander around the grounds of Merion East Monday. And I’ll be thinking about Chris Fuga, too.

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