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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

U.S. Amateur qualfier at Stonewall a chance to watch Aivazoglou in action

   EAST NANTMEAL – When spelling names right is a big part of what you do for most of your adult life – which it was for me in 38 years in the newspaper business – a name like Aivazoglou stands out.
   So I was always careful to spell A.J. Aivazoglou’s name right as he rose through the junior ranks the last six or seven years, first on the Philadelphia Section PGA Junior Tour, then in some Golf Association of Philadelphia junior events and then when he joined The Haverford School golf program.
   So when Jerry Cashman, the assistant general manager/caddie master at Stonewall told me first thing Monday morning, “You go with Andreas … I’m not sure how to say this kid’s last name,” I said, “I know who that is.”
   So began my second excellent caddying adventure at Stonewall in 11 days with a returning Inter-Ac League standout, this time in a U.S. Amateur qualifier, 18 holes at the North, 18 holes at the Old with Rolling Green Golf Club’s A.J. Aivazoglou, a 16-year-old who will be a junior at The Haverford School this fall.
   I had caddied for Penn Charter senior Brian Isztwan in the 36-hole Christman Cup July 13 (and for three holes on the 14th) at the North Course. And Malvern Prep senior Matt Davis was in our group that day, so I’ve seen three of the top returning Inter-Ac players in very competitive situations in the last couple of weeks. They did nothing to change my opinion that the Inter-Ac is the best scholastic golf league in Pennsylvania.
   I have always had an affinity for the local U.S. Amateur qualifier. I somehow landed on the bag of the great Jay Sigel when I was a Merion looper for the East Course half of a qualifier that was also hosted by Llanerch Country Club, like 1972ish. That was after I caddied for Sigel in a practice round the day before when we were joined by Buddy Marucci toting his Maryland bag. Jay Sigel, Buddy Marucci and me. Hang around Merion long enough and you’ll have days like that.
   But just like that long ago day at Merion, there were 140-some golf dreamers trying to land one of four tickets to Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif. and Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, where the 2017 U.S. Amateur will tee off Aug. 14. Match play will be contested at Riviera, home of the L.A. Open and I don’t care what corporate entity has slapped its name on it, it’s the L.A. Open.
   Just about anybody who’s anybody on the Philadelphia golf scene and beyond will take a shot at a U.S. Am berth and the opportunity to take on Stonewall was probably an added enticement. Tom Doak’s twin gems have gained a well-deserved reputation as real-men golf courses, a reputation that was only enhanced by last summer’s renewal of the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship staged flawlessly at the 'Wall.
   It’s always a tight squeeze getting all those guys around two courses in one day. And Monday got off to a bad start when overnight rains stopped as the day dawned, leaving about three inches of rainfall behind. No way the two courses in northwest Chester County could be ready in time for first tee time of 7 a.m.
   The original tee times would be moved back by the Golf Association of Philadelphia officials administering the qualifier an hour-and-a-half. The wet conditions meant that the North played every inch of its 6,821 yards and the Old Course played every inch of its 6,823 yards. I think we lost a couple of inches on a few drives. When weather approached late in round 2, everybody involved knew this one was going to sunset and maybe a little beyond. The horn sounded at 7 p.m. We headed back out a little after 8 with three holes to play, holes 7, 8 and 9 on the Old Course.  A long, long day ended pretty much in darkness trudging back to the clubhouse at the Old Course.
   It was Haverford School past and present in our group as former Fords standout James Kania Jr., who I -- in consultation with county coaches, but it was usually just me -- made the 2005-06 Player of the Year at the Delco Daily Times.
   The first time I ever set eyes on Stonewall was in 2009 when I just had to drive up here to see Kania battle former Strath Haven standout Conrad Von Borsig, my choice as the 2004-05 Daily Times Player of the Year, in the BMW Philadelphia Amateur final.  Von Borsig won the match, but Kania, playing then as now out of Overbrook Golf Club, was the 2009 GAP William Hyndman III Player of the Year after winning the Patterson Cup at Llanerch.
   Our third was Matt Balcer, an Archbishop Ryan product who concluded his career at Chestnut Hill College in the spring of 2016 after three years as team captain.
   There were no qualifiers out of our group. Medalist honors went to Dylan Stein, a junior at the University of Arizona out of Flemington, N.J. You have to be able to play a little to make it at any Pac-12 program and Stein made the lineup for the Wildcats for the Pac-12 Championship at snowy Boulder Country Club.
   Stein matched par in the morning with a 70 at the North Course and was on the 16th green at 3-under for his round at the Old Course when the horn sounded at 7 p.m. He hustled back out there and parred 16 and 18 around a bogey at the par-3 17th for the best round of the day on the Old Course, a 2-under 68 that earned him the qualifying medal at 2-under 138.
   That’s great playing on two tough golf courses with wet conditions and a little thunder, lightning and rain thrown in at the end.
   Remarkably everybody who wanted to finish did finish Monday.  Quite a few players whose hopes for a U.S. Amateur berth had long since been dashed bailed when the horn halted play at 7 p.m.
   Two other players, though, left Stonewall with their U.S. Amateur credentials in hand.
   Mike Graboyes, the Ivy League champion as a junior at Cornell this spring out of Wachtung, N.J., added an even-par 70 in the twilight on the Old Course to his opening-round 69 at the North to finish a shot behind Stein. Graboyes’ performance in the Ivy Championship earned him a well-deserved individual invitation to the NCAA Stanford Regional.
   William & Mary junior David Hicks from Cape May Court House, N.J. -- with, I’m pretty sure, Stonewall caddy and Wagner lacrosse player Dan Hughes on the bag – had the day’s best round, a 3-under 67, at the North in the morning and a 2-over 72 in the afternoon to share second with Graboyes at 1-under 139.
   Hicks is the younger brother of Alexander Hicks, also a William & Mary standout who lost in the 2013 BMW Philadelphia Amateur final at Aronimink Golf Club to Michael McDermott.
   Four players returned to Stonewall Tuesday morning looking for that final ticket to Riviera after they finished tied for fourth at even-par 140.
   That ticket went to Ben Cooley, a scholastic standout at Abington who was a senior on Penn’s surprising 2015 Ivy League championship team. Cooley blasted from a bunker to tap-in range for a par on the Old Course’s tough par-3 ninth hole to advance to the U.S. Amateur.
   Christian Sease, the 2016 Carolinas Amateur champion who wrapped up his collegiate career at Winthrop this spring, is the first alternate after making bogey despite rinsing his tee shot in the pond at the ninth.
   The second alternate went to Penn State junior Ryan Dornes, a former Manheim Township standout who made birdie on the par-4 10th to earn that nod.
   The fourth member of the playoff foursome was Carter Thompson, a senior at Penn who began his collegiate career at Florida State. What were the odds on two Penn guys in a 4-for-1 U.S. Amateur  qualifying playoff?
   As for my man A.J., well, the 6-2 -- at least -- left-hander is blessed with a ton of talent. It’s funny to observe a youngster’s progress just by his or her scores. Aivazoglou, who works on his game with Temple golf coach Brian Quinn, was one of the guys who was always improving, but who would sprinkle in the occasional great round.
   Now I know where that comes from. A.J. made five bogeys and just couldn’t buy a birdie in a 5-over 75 in the morning at the North. He made some great scrambling pars, but just didn’t hit enough greens. It seemed like every distance left him between clubs on his approaches. But he stayed patient and, despite being frustrated at times, just kept playing.
   He hit as good a two shots back-to-back as I’ve seen on the par-4 16th at the Old Course, arguably the second toughest hole on the course, to 15 feet and three-putted when he got a little too aggressive with his birdie putt. A really good birdie putt at the 17th just refused to fall.
   When we headed for the first tee for our last nine holes, he still didn’t have a birdie and you could tell he was wondering how it was possible for him to play 36 holes anywhere and not make a birdie.
   A.J. got a bad break when his approach to the par-4 fourth, the toughest hole at Stonewall, skipped into the rough, hole high, just off the green. If you’ve ever played the Old Course, you know that’s an impossible shot. His chip shot came out hot and would have gone in the bunker off the other side of the green, except the ball hit the stick, hard, and dropped in. At long last a birdie, an unexpected one at that.
   A.J. rolled in a tough 25-footer for birdie on the par-3 5th as the storm clouds gathered.
   There was never a question whether we would go back out if play resumed. We lost Balcer on the eighth hole, our next-to-last of the day, when he drove it right, found it, hit it over the fairway into the fescue that runs down to the pond on the left and never could locate it. He withdrew rather than go back and try to finish a certain triple bogey. 
   It had been a frustrating day for Balcer, who had a 77 at the North, but he never stopped battling.
   It was pretty dark when we teed off at the ninth, but there was enough light to see A.J.’s tee shot, his  lefty cut drifting a little too far left, splash into the pond. His third double bogey of the round left him with an 82 on the Old Course and a 157 total.
   Kania made bogey at the last for a 4-over 74 at the Old Course to go with his 2-over 72 at the North. He might not be quite the player he was when he was GAP’s Player of the Year, but he was really solid all day. He was the perfect guy for a young player like Aivazoglou to watch in action.
   I guess you could argue that Aivazoglou was biting off a little more than he could chew, taking on Stonewall in a U.S. Amateur qualifier at 16. But he was hardly overmatched. The player I watched every step of the way is eminently capable of playing somewhere around par, or better, anywhere.
   So why not Stonewall in a U.S. Amateur qualifier? The biggest learning curve he had was just keeping up his mental focus in a one-day double round.
   It was, as I commented to the Haverford School greats of the past and present as we headed for the clubhouse in the gathering darkness, a fun day, in a weird, golf sort of way.

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