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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Stonewall came out of hiding for a little while for U.S. Mid-Amateur

   The signs with pictures of past U.S. Mid-Amateur champions that lined the driveway at Stonewall came down Tuesday. The United States Golf Association has come and gone.
   The slice of Chester County farmland that Tom Doak turned into two outstanding golf courses, the Old Course and the North Course, have returned to their relatively undisturbed existence after a week in the national golf spotlight.
   By just about any measure, the 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at Stonewall, which concluded Thursday with Stewart Hagestad’s dramatic victory over Scott Harvey on the 37th hole of a terrific final match, has to be deemed a success.
   Stonewall’s remote location where East Nantmeal Township meets Warwick Township was designed to be away from the crowd. For many of the members, it is a second course, a place they can head for when the golf club or country club they originally belonged to requires tee times because there is a lot of play.
   For golfers in the Philadelphia area – home to Merion, Pine Valley, Aronimink, Philadelphia Cricket Club, Philadelphia Country Club, Rolling Green, Llanerch, Huntingdon Valley, Sunnybrook – the secret was out long ago. Stonewall became one of those places you couldn’t pass up if you had a chance to play.
   And the Old Course became one that, to a certain extent, helped put Doak on the map. That’s how a course that was only a little more than 20-years old caught the attention of the USGA to the point where the organization was interested in holding one of its national championships there.
   The addition of the North Course, literally adjoining the Old Course, added a lot of logistical appeal for a 265-player field like the Mid-Am. It also gave the USGA the opportunity to hold one of its traditional 36-hole match-play finals on two courses for the first time, something Stonewall was uniquely qualified to do.
   The Mid-Am was also the perfect opportunity to showcase Stonewall without risking overexposure. The first weekend of qualifying coincided with the second weekend of college football and the opening weekend of the NFL. The Philadelphia newspapers couldn’t possibly devote manpower or space in the sports section to a golf tournament when Carson Wentz was about to make his debut as Eagles quarterback.
   The people who needed to be there were there and it is no small feat to host an event in which 265 players, a small army of officials and marshals and scorekeepers and, oh yeah, caddies were going to show up for the first two days of qualifying. A few open fields on the Stonewall periphery were used to park cars and shuttles disturbed the countryside a little.
   And once the weekend was over and the field was reduced to 64 match-play contestants, it wasn’t such a big tournament anymore and it kept getting smaller until only Hagestad and Harvey were left last Thursday.
   Even the presence of a small crew of people from Fox was relatively unobtrusive, well as unobtrusive as Holly Sonders can be. If you watched any of the coverage of the semifinals or finals on FS1, most of the pictures were coming from cameras on the ground frantically shuttling from hole to hole in carts. A blimp made one pass during the semifinals for some quick aerials and off it went to the next college football game.
   There were maybe a half-dozen temporary “towers” strategically located around the Old Course, but they were quickly lowered, hitched to a trailer and driven away when the tournament was over.
   Both of Doak’s courses easily held their own against the top mid-amateur players in the country.  On Day 1 of qualifying when searing heat and humidity were still hanging around, there were 17 sub-par rounds, only two of them on the Old Course.
   When gusty winds ushered in cooler weather for Day 2 Sunday, there were only three sub-par rounds on both courses. One of them, a 1-under 69 on the North, was shot by Lee Maxwell of Cookeville, Tenn. and did not quite make up for the opening-round 84 he shot at the Old Course.
But the Old Course is not impossible, by any means. Hagestad was 3-down following 18 holes at the North in the championship match. But he registered an astounding nine birdies in 19 holes at the Old Course to finally beat Harvey on the 37th hole.
   He was conceded a 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th green, but the way he was putting at the point, he was probably going to make it. With that concession, he shot a very legitimate 66, one better than the competitive course record at the Old Course.
   The Mid-Am rookie, a native Californian who came East two years ago to take a job in finance, was very complimentary of Stonewall following his victory.
   “I thought it was great,” Hagestad said. “This is my first experience with a championship. I thought it was a great match-play course, the way the USGA set it up with some of the tees and some of the pins. It was a great mix of being just challenging enough where the weather could kind dictate how one had to play out there.
   “So, I thought it was a tremendous setup. I thought it was a tremendous course. The length, I thought, was great. It was just long enough to really challenge you, again for the weather to kind of dictate how you play and how you had to play certain holes.
   “Like number 8, for example, was like 420. That hole is so hard and I don’t know why. It’s just visually intimidating. There are a couple spots out here, 17 is the same way, 15 is the same way, 16’s the same way.
   “Compared to a U.S. Amateur, it doesn’t quite have the same yardage or anything like that. But around the greens, it really shows its teeth. And I thought it was really great test as it relates to match play and overall a really, really nice job by the USGA.”
   The final was a great match with two great players going at it. Was it simply two strong players having their best day or did the golf course bring it out of them?
   Do you think it’s a coincidence that Bobby Jones, Hogan, Nicklaus, Trevino, literally some of the greatest names in the history of the game, had such significant moments at Merion’s East Course? In the reams of stuff I read in the runup to the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, some golf course architect or another reasoned that great things have happened at Merion because Merion is great.
   It was as much the setting last week that produced the drama in the Mid-Am final as it was the two players. It happened at Stonewall because the Old Course helped make it happen.
   When I caught the tail end of Michael McDermott’s second-round victory over Joe Alfieri, the guy lugging around the standard with the match status on it was Stonewall club champion Dave Gibbons. It was emblematic of how all in the Stonewall membership and staff were for this event.
   And, as usual, members from clubs from all over the area volunteered their time to help out, in some cases the very same people who volunteered six weeks earlier at Rolling Green for the U.S. Women’s Amateur. I rode in shuttles with some of these people and many put in long days. And the heat and humidity for the two practice rounds and the first day of qualifying bordered on unbearable.
   In the end, it was a pretty neat event. And, in keeping with Stonewall’s roots, it was all about the golf.

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