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Sunday, July 16, 2017

A front-row seat for the Christman Cup at Stonewall's North Course

   WARWICK -- First things first, let’s give credit where credit is due.
   Spring-Ford senior Ben Pochet wasn’t there Friday to accept the trophy for his victory in the Golf Association of Philadelphia’s J.  Fred Christman Cup, presented by GlobalGolfPost, at Stonewall’s North Course.
   Pochet, a Drexel commit who plays out of Spring-Ford Country Club, has been on a terrific run of golf that might have started when he was the runnerup to Marty McGuckin in the 2016 Christman Cup at Running Deer Golf Club. He swept to the individual titles in the District One and East Regional titles in Class AAA during the scholastic postseason last fall.
   He earned a trip to the U.S. Junior Amateur, which gets under way Monday at Flint Hills National Golf Club in Andover, Kan. with a solid 2-under 70 in a qualifier at Makefield Highlands Golf Club. And he was in the air on his way to the U.S. Junior when it was finally determined that his 1-over 141 total, which he had posted moments before play was suspended Thursday at 4:40 p.m. with lightning and eventually a tornado watch affecting northwestern Chester County.
   So why is there a dateline on this post? Because I was there, too. I got a front-row seat to the Christman Cup as the caddy for Penn Charter senior Brian Isztwan, who plays out of Huntingdon Valley Country Club.
   I can tell you how impressive Pochet’s victory was because the North, the second of Tom Doak’s twin gems at Stonewall, was playing tough and, man was it hot. It was the kind of heat that makes it tough to think at times, but it didn’t seem to bother a field filled with the top junior players in the Philadelphia area much.
   I’ve been a semi-regular caddy at Stonewall since the newspaper business jettisoned me early in 2016 and I offered my services to Isztwan after his runnerup finish to Dawson Anders in GAP’s Junior Boys’ Championship last month at Spring-Ford. After all, his caddy in match play at the Junior Boys’ was younger brother Patrick and he was also in the field for the Christman.
   I carried for Brian and Patrick, a freshman at Penn Charter, in a practice round the Sunday before the Christman and got the assignment for the tournament itself. I got to see enough of Patrick’s game to see that the kid is really tough from 100 yards in with the touch of a magician with a wedge in his hands.
   When our third for the tournament didn’t show up, I ended up in a group of the Inter-Ac League all-stars from the last few years. Brian would be playing with Malvern Prep senior Matt Davis, who plays out of Aronimink Golf Club. And caddying for Davis was McGuckin, the reigning Christman Cup champion coming off a solid freshman season playing for Brian Quinn at Temple.
   So our group included the 2014 Inter-Ac individual champion in Isztwan and the 2015 Inter-Ac individual champion in McGuckin. Davis and McGuckin were key members of the Friars’ 2015 Inter-Ac champions that made a nearly perfect 29-0-1 march through the toughest scholastic golf league in Pennsylvania.
   Last fall, Isztwan stood atop the Inter-Ac’s points standings compiled during the six mini-tournaments that make up the regular season and Davis was sixth. So it was three of the best players in the Inter-Ac the last three seasons … and me.
   It made for an interesting day and my guy, Isztwan, made quite a run at the title before finishing tied for fifth with his playing partner Davis.
   It didn’t start well. Brian opened with a double bogey on the 10th and made another double bogey when his tee shot found the pond to the right of the tough par-3 13th. He was 7-over when we arrived at the par-4 seventh hole, our 16th hole of the morning round.
   He sent a chip screaming toward the hole and it looked like it was going to be another bogey, at best. But then a funny thing happened. The ball hit the stick and settled two feet from the hole. A sure bogey, or worse, was a par.
   Then Brian birdied the last two holes of the morning round, the par-5 eighth and the par-3 ninth, saving the round. He signed for a 5-over 75, seven shots behind Pochet’s outstanding 2-under 68 and three more than our playing partner Davis, who played a really solid round of golf, finishing with a 2-over 72.
   Brian was in the closely mown area over the par-5 third hole in two early in the afternoon round. He could have putted it or chipped it. He chipped it right in the hole for eagle and it was on.
   When he birdied 12 and then 14, he was 3-over for the tournament. Brian got a little lucky when the trees to the left at 15 spit out his errant tee shot. He smashed his approach 10 feet below the hole. That, of course, was when play was halted.
   When we got back out there 16-and-a-half hours or so later, we knew Pochet was in at 1-over. Brian just drilled the birdie putt. It was his third birdie in five holes and he was 3-under for the round and just one shot behind Pochet.
   In the morning round, Brian’s tee shot at the 16th had gotten away from him to the right, not far from the 14th tee, with a tree between him and the hole. Somehow he saw a way to hook a 6-iron around the tree – “Bubba golf,” he called it and this is a golf blog so I don’t have to explain which Bubba would try a shot like that – to 10 feet for a spectacular birdie. It was the best shot I saw all day and, believe me, I saw a ton of great golf shots between Brian and Matt.
   Things didn’t go so well on 16 this time. Brian was just short of the green in two and chunked his chip, failing to account for how wet the ground had become from the occasional downpours that had pelted the North. He had the exact same putt that he made for birdie in the morning, but missed it this time for a devastating double bogey.
   Davis rolled in a birdie putt at the last and he and Brian finished tied for fifth at 4-over 144. Davis had his second 72 and Brian signed for a 1-under 69, one of only two sub-par rounds in the afternoon, the other a 1-under 69 by Austin Barbin, a standout from Elkton, Md. who was playing out of the GAP Junior Players Club.
   But hey, Davis had a better caddy. It was a really interesting dynamic just to listen to a player of McGuckin’s caliber thinking the game right along with Matt.
   Give credit to Brian Isztwan, too. Not a whole lot was going right until that chip shot hit the flag at the seventh, our 16th of the morning round. For most of the first round he was five or six shots behind Davis. But he never stopped battling, never conceded a thing.
   Hopefully, his caddy, who was just trying to keep the focus on the next hole, the next shot, helped. But I didn’t hit a shot.
   Pochet had struggled early in his second round, but ended up with a 3-over 73, which, combined with his opening-round 68, got the job done.
   “I knew the Christman Cup would be a fun tournament to play,” Pochet told the GAP website after finishing his two rounds Thursday. “The GAP runs great tournaments. I knew I wanted to get back. I didn’t play (Wednesday), so I felt rested and excited and came in here relaxed.
   “I hit the ball pretty well today. I just felt comfortable out there, which was a change from some of the rounds I had earlier this year.”
   Barbin, who had opened with a 73 and equaled Isztwan’s second-round 69, and Ron Robinson of Commonwealth National Golf Club, who added a second-round 73 to his opening-round 69, shared second place at 2-over 142.
   Robinson’s Commonwealth National clubmate, David Kim, finished alone in fourth with rounds of 72 and 71 for a 143 total.
   Our group accounted for the tie for fifth, Isztwan and Davis both coming in at 4-over 144. Akhil Giri of Laurel Creek Country Club finished alone in seventh at 146 with rounds of 71 and 75.
   Norristown junior Caleb Ryan, a GAP Junior Players Club entry, headed a group of four players tied for eighth at 147. Ryan had rounds of 73 and 74.
   Ryan was joined at that figure by Luca Jezzeny (73-74) of The Bucks Club, Andrew Kotler (75-72) of Cherry Valley Country Club and Christopher Skean (73-74) of Kennett Square Golf & Country Club.
   The Haverford School’s David Hurly, playing out of White Manor Country Club, finished alone in 12th at 148 after bouncing back from an opening-round 77 with a 1-over 71.
   Pope John Paul II senior J.T. Spina, who plays out of Spring-Ford Country Club, headed a group of five players tied for 13th at 149. Spina, who was the top District One finisher in the PIAA Class AAA Championship last fall with a tie for third, had  rounds of 73 and 76.
   Joining him at 149 were: Ryan Conners (72-77), the District One runnerup at Bishop Shanahan who plays out of Whitford Country Club; Liam Hart (74-75) of Spring Mill Country Club; Daniel Rieger (71-78) of Sunnybrook Golf Club; and Cole Kemmerer (74-75), a member of Episcopal Academy’s Inter-Ac championship team last fall who plays out of Waynesborough Country Club.
   One more thing worth mentioning was the job done by Chris Roselle and his GAP staff. There was some grumbling when play was halted and the brunt of the storm never really hit the North Course, but there was no point sending players out with a tornado watch being issued.
   Roselle and Co. did the right thing and a nice window opened up Friday morning that allowed the tournament to be completed.
   All things considered -- and there’s not a whole lot you can do about the weather -- it was a neat day and a half and, like I said, I saw a lot of great golf. These kids can really play.

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