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Friday, December 30, 2016

Highlights from a year of golf for this blogger



   I wasn’t really sure what to expect in 2016. The only thing I knew for sure was that by the end of the first week of the new year, I was going to be out of a job, a pink slip my reward for 20 years of service at the Delaware County Daily Times.
   It was sort of like getting thrown off a sinking ship, the newspaper business being what it is these days. But I did have a modest severance and a desire to keep up this golf blog, T Mac Tees Off, which I started in 2011 at the Daily Times.
   I also knew there were some big events coming to the area in 2016, the Constellation Senior Players Championship at Philadelphia Cricket Club’s historic Wissahickon Course, the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Rolling Green Golf Club and the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at Stonewall.
That's me on the left with Michael Mitani of Irvine, Calif. during a practice round for the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at Stonewall's North Course.
   As the employment rejections piled up in my email in-box, I kept finding things to put on the blog, mostly college golf. It was pointless for me to become a regular commentator on the PGA Tour or try to figure out when Tiger Woods was going to return to competitive golf. There’s plenty of really good writers in newspapers, magazines and online doing that stuff.
   I wanted my blog to focus on local stuff, which increasingly does not appear in a lot of media outlets. My first forays into college golf really began with Philadelphia area kids like the Penn State pair of Jackie Rogowicz and Cara Basso, Erica Herr at Wake Forest, Cole Berman at Georgetown and Brandon Matthews at Temple. They were all players I had come across while covering scholastic golf at the Daily Times or, in the case of Matthews, at Golf Association of Philadelphia events, Matthews having won the Philadelphia Open in 2013 and 2015.
   I ended up concentrating more on the women’s college golf scene, partly because there were more local kids playing at Division I schools, but mostly with an eye toward some of the players I figured were going to be headed for Rolling Green, the underrated William Flynn gem in Springfield, Delaware County, for the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
   There was one other aspect to what really turned 2016 into the year of golf for me that was only in the back of my mind early in the year. In March I took a ride up to Stonewall to see if maybe they needed any loopers.
   I had caddied at Merion Golf Club for 12 years in my teens and 20s. What I thought was my last loop was the second round of the 1981 U.S. Open, an experience I chronicled in the Daily Times (it ultimately showed up in any number of publications in the area) ahead of the 2013 Open at Merion. But I was 61, so it wasn’t a sure thing that I’d still be able to lug two bags around a big-time course like Stonewall. But I wasn’t far away and Paul Mauer, the general manager at Stonewall, was a fellow Archbishop Carroll graduate and a Merion caddy colleague as well, so I thought I’d give it a shot.
   Like I said, I was aware that the Mid-Am was coming to Stonewall as well, so I figured I might gain some insight into Tom Doak’s twin courses in northwest Chester County that I might be able to work into the blog.
   One thing about caddying had not really changed since 1981. If you show up and the caddie master, in this case caddie master/assistant GM Jerry Cashman, needs somebody to carry two golf bags, he’ll send you out there. It helps if you’ve done it before.
   Between grabbing a loop here and there at Stonewall, filling up the golf blog and doing some freelance work for Joe Burkhardt’s Tri-State Golfer (pretty comprehensive history of the PGA Tour Champions in the Philadelphia area in advance of the Senior Players at the Cricket Club, if I do say so myself), I stayed pretty busy through much of 2016. 
   Most of the blog posts came from stuff I picked up off the Internet. Colleges have increasingly improved coverage of their teams on their respective sites and, combined with GolfStat, I was able to follow the college golf scene all the way through the women’s and men’s championships, hosted by Oregon at Eugene Country Club.
   I hadn’t really planned to actually go out and “cover” any golf – or in the parlance of the blogger, “live-blog” – but I did sneak down to Gulph Mills Golf Club for the Inter-Ac Tournament, an event I had been able to make several years in a row at the Daily Times, and watched Meghan Fahey capture the tournament title. She was at Notre Dame then and is at Agnes Irwin now and is the subject of a nice feature story in the Golf Association of Philadelphia Magazine’s winter issue on the GAP website. I’m also a big fan of Fahey’s now teammate at Agnes Irwin, Kaitlyn Lees, who was the runnerup that day.
   And I couldn’t pass up qualifying day for GAP’s BMW Philadelphia Amateur Championship at my old stomping grounds at Merion’s East Course, which was hosting the event for the first time in 62 years. I caught two-time champion Michael McDermott and 2014 winner Jeff Osberg playing the testy “back five” at the East.
   At week’s end they would stage one of the more memorable finals in the 116-year history of the Philly Am with McDermott pulling out a 1-up victory as the 36-hole match went the distance.
   I spent the rest of qualifying day following Berman, the defending champion whom I had covered during an outstanding scholastic career at The Haverford School, and 2009 Philly Am champion Conrad Von Borsig, whose high school exploits at Strath Haven I had also chronicled. It was great to walk the fairways with the parents of Cole and Conrad – Cole’s dad was actually on the bag that day – and to visit another old friend, the East Course itself, which I toured at least 1,000 times in my caddying days with golfers good, bad and everywhere in between.
   The highlight of my year of golf though, was the Mid-Am at Stonewall. I had earned my stripes well enough during the summer -- learning the yardages and, more importantly, at least some of the subtleties of the greens on the Old Course – to be among the group of loopers made available to Mid-Am contestants smart enough to want a local caddy on the bag. I was hardly the best green-reader in the Stonewall caddyshack, but I’ve always felt if you can read Merion greens, you can read any greens.
   It didn’t turn into a “Cinderella Story,” for either Michael Mitani of Irvine, Calif. or his caddy. Mitani was a junior golf contemporary of that Tiger Woods fella in Southern California and burned out a little on the game as a junior player. He shot 81 on the Old Course and 80 on the North Course, which played much tougher on Day 2 as blessedly cooler temperatures and a gusty wind replaced high heat and humidity.
   But it was, just as it had been caddying for Jay Cudd at Merion in 1981, a tremendous golf experience. I’m not much of a player myself. I’ve always gotten a much bigger kick out of watching really good players play. I got that for two practice rounds and two rounds of qualifying with Mitani, not to mention our practice-round and qualifying playing partners.
   Even finishing well back in the qualifying pack, Mitani hit shots that most players can only dream about. It was the first USGA event he had ever played in, but he certainly proved to me that he belonged. I hope he proved it to himself as well.
   I turned in a caddy bib for my old-school clipboard for the match-play portion of the event and saw some tremendous golf. My focus was on the local guys and among a solid group of GAP players who reached match play was none other than McDermott, about 11 weeks removed from his epic Philly Am victory on his home course at Merion.
   McDermott is a Delco guy and the meat of his outstanding amateur career coincided with my stint as the golf guy at the Daily Times. I had sneaked down to the Llanerch Country Club, McDermott’s home track growing up, for the second of the two local Mid-Am qualifiers and saw Mike earn a spot in the field for Stonewall.
   McDermott was at his gritty best at Stonewall. I watched him edge Joseph Ida, a former Kansas State standout and a reinstated amateur, on the 20th hole in the first round. The next day, I got to Stonewall just in time to see McDermott finish off a 1-up win over Joe Alfieri, another reinstated amateur from Lutz, Fla.
   That set up an afternoon match with Derek Busby, yet another reinstated amateur from Ruston, La., for a berth in the quarterfinals. Busby was the most talented player I saw that week, just as pure a ball-striker as you’ll ever come across.
   Somehow McDermott got it to the 18th hole all square. And he won the match when Busby inexplicably shoved an 18-incher for par out of the hole.
   McDermott would lose in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Stewart Hagestad, 2-up, the next morning, but it was a tremendous run for the 41-year-old who had predicted at the qualifier at Llanerch that his knowledge of Stonewall would give him an edge in the Mid-Am.
   The week concluded with an epic match between Hagestad, a native Southern Californian who had moved to New York City for his finance job, and Scott Harvey, a North Carolinian who had won the 2014 Mid-Am at Saucon Valley Country Club.
   The first 18 holes of the scheduled 36-hole final were played on the North Course, the first time the USGA had used two courses for a 36-hole final, and Harvey took a 3-up lead to the afternoon round at the Old Course.
   Hagestad was 4-down with five holes to play, then made birdies at 15 and 17 and got a conceded birdie at the 18th that sent the match to the 37th hole, the par-3 ninth at the Old Course. When his 14-foot birdie putt found the hole for the title, it was the first time Hagestad was ahead in the match all day. It was great golf on a great golf course. It was an overdue star turn for Doak’s twin creations.
   Earlier in the summer, I spent almost the entire week at the Women’s Amateur at Rolling Green watching young ladies who I fully expect to be watching on TV playing on the LPGA Tour in the not-too-distant future.
   I again concentrated on the locals early in the week and was rewarded when Aurora Kan, whose outstanding scholastic career at Chichester I had covered in the Daily Times, made match play in one of those 9-for-5 playoffs with darkness descending on Rolling Green.
   Rogowicz, a former Pennsbury star coming off a strong freshman season at Penn State, failed to advance out of that playoff. But following her in the second round of qualifying gave me a front-row seat for a brilliant 6-under 65 by Hawaiian teen Mariel Galdiano that earned her medalist honors.
   I watched Kan fall in the first round of match play to Katelyn Dambaugh, the talented left-hander from South Carolina who was the runnerup in voting for the Annika Award. I saw Dambaugh fall to Japanese teen Nasa Nataoka in a scintillating round-of-16 match.
   I saw eventual champion Eun Jeong Seong, a 16-year-old from South Korea, outlast Californian Andrea Lee in the quarterfinals in a rematch of their U.S. Girls’ Junior final from two weeks earlier, also won by Seong.
   It was a tremendous week of golf at Rolling Green and the membership there and Matt Dupre and his committee that made it happen basked in the glow of a job well done.
   There was one more highlight that didn’t make the blog. Stonewall staged its annual Fall Scramble the weekend before Halloween. I was assigned to a couple of guys from Carlisle, Jeff Frazier and Brent Will, neither of whom had ever played Stonewall before.
   I can’t imagine the Old Course playing much tougher than it did that first day. It was a chilly day with winds absolutely howling out of the northwest. But these guys could play. Frazier, a left-hander with a somewhat unorthodox action, has played in the U.S. Mid-Amateur six times and Will just bombs it off the tee.
   We started on the sixth and Will drilled a 2-iron approach into the teeth of the wind to set up a birdie at eight, Frazier holed an impossible chip for birdie at the par-3 ninth, Will again stiffed an approach into a crosswind at 10 to set up another birdie and they made it four in a row with a birdie at the par-5 11th.
   Frazier hit a sweeping hook into the tough par-3 15th to tap-in range and Will holed a chip from behind the tough 16th for another birdie.
   The would sign for an 8-under 62 that was four shots better than anybody else could do. It might be the most fun I’ve ever had on a golf course. Give a lot of good golfers the line and the speed and they become great putters. Will always putted first, giving the line and the speed to Frazier and it got to the point where I was surprised when Frazier didn’t make the putt.
   They put together another 8-under 62 the next day in more serene conditions on the North Course that seemed almost routine. I’m not sure I had much to do with their victory, but they had never seen either course before, so I must have done something right. Just sayin’.
   The great thing about a blog is that all the stuff I wrote is still on here, arranged in chronological order. It’s kind of like a personal journal of local golf in 2016. You want to relive McDermott’s victory over Busby in the round of 16 at the U.S. Mid-Am, just go to early September and read away. You want to look back at Brynn Walker playing in the ShopRite LPGA Classic the weekend before she graduated from Radnor, it’s in here. If you finished in the top 10 in any division of a Philadelphia Section PGA Junior Tour event in 2016, you’re probably in here. Missed the PIAA postseason? T Mac Tees Off was live at the District One, East Regional and PIAA championships. A roundup of each of the six Inter-Ac League regular-season mini-tournaments? They’re here.
   This is post No. 370 for 2016. Not sure what 2017 will bring, but it is unlikely I’ll match that total. I haven’t been able to figure out how to make money for my efforts, but I’m open to suggestions. Hey, I’m a blogger, not an ad salesman. I’m closing in on 69,000 page views all-time and I’m guessing that nearly half of them were this year. If you have any ideas on how I can make this a little more worth my efforts or if you want to give me a heads-up on any golf news, my email address is chaseutfan@gmail.com.
   T Mac Tees Off isn't something I might try to do. The record of 370 posts in 2016 is there for the reading. No “fake news” here.
   For now, the plan is to keep T Mac Tees Off going in 2017. I wouldn’t mind making it another year of golf.





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