Van Sickle Ties Swing Guru En Route to Second Shivas Invitational Title

A reader in Texas wants to know if the Top 50 blog has morphed into a stable of tournament golfers. “You hardly ever write up a new golf course or devote more than a few lines to a classic layout,” he writes, “but every time I pick up the paper I read about some Top 50 staffer winning the Masters or something. What are you doing in your underground complex at Catch Basin — cloning tour players?”

Philadelphia Cricket Club

The former U.S. Open venue doubles as an outdoor wedding chapel. (John Garrity)

The reader exaggerates. No one on our payroll has yet managed to win a major, and I can’t think of anyone at our Kansas City headquarters who could beat Tiger Woods straight up. But I can see how a Texan might overestimate our tournament success, given the near-constant media drumbeat for our best players.

Just this past weekend, for instance, career-amateur Gary Van Sickle won the 24th Shivas Invitational on the 50th-ranked St. Martin’s Course at Philadelphia Cricket Club. Van Sickle, our executive vice-president and chief course rater, shot a first-and-final-round 69 on the surviving nine at St. Martin’s, a two-time U.S. Open venue, matching former PGA Tour player and $300-per-hour swing coach Dewey Arnette.* It was Van Sickle’s second Shivas title in as many tries, and it won him another brass plate on the hard-to-ship Shivas Trophy.

*Tournament chairman Michael Bamberger ruled that Arnette was “co-champion” on a technicality — the technicality being that he shot the same score as Van Sickle.

Van Sickle’s latest win (along with my own top-20 finish at the Shivas) caps a string of Top 50 playing triumphs, including a couple of high-dollar victories (West Penn Open, Frank Fuhrer Invitational) and a tournament-best 66 at the New England Open by our social-networking coordinator, Mike Van Sickle, who has already qualified for the second stage of PGA Tour Q-School.

Nevertheless, the Top 50 rates courses, not players. Philly Cricket has two other tracks — the 37th-ranked Wissahickon Course, designed by A.W. Tillinghast (currently being renovated by Keith Foster and Dan Meersman) and the upstart Militia Hill Course, designed by Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry — but it’s the Chestnut Hill track, behind the PCC’s cricket pitch and sprawling red-brick clubhouse, that hosted the 1907 and 1910 Opens, won by Alec Ross and Alex Smith, respectively. (Ross’s brother Donald designed an eye-opening seven courses in the current Top 50, including Royal Dornoch, Seminole and Hillcrest.) And here’s a great bit of trivia from Sal Johnson’s book, The Official U.S. Open Almanac:

Entering the 13th hole of the final round [in 1907], A.W. Tillinghast was the low amateur in the field. At that moment, however, , he was overcome by the heat, forcing him to withdraw …. Tillinghast, of course, went on to become one of America’s finest course designers. Some of his famous courses, like Baltusrol and Winged Foot [plus Bethpage Black and Swope Memorial] have been tapped by the USGA as sites for its championships.

“Philadelphia Cricket Club,” Johnson points out in his 1910 notes, “was the first host club to allow the professionals into the clubhouse and to give them locker room privileges.”

These days, the top pros tend not to congregate in the Chestnut Hill shower room. But it’s not because they’re not welcome; it’s more a case of the St. Martin’s layout no longer being U.S. Open compliant, in that nine holes have gone missing. The Shivas Invitational turned this into a virtue by formatting the competition as two nine-hole rounds, the first played from the forward tees to front hole locations with a maximum of four clubs, none longer than 39.5 inches. (The winner of this first lap was Simon & Schuster editor Jofi Ferrari-Adler, who shot a stunning four-under-par 31 with a 3-iron as his biggest stick.) The second nine, played from the back tees to back hole locations, was a conventional 14-club competition.

The playing conditions, it must be said, were superb, it being one of those rare autumn days when shirtsleeve temperatures and abundant sunshine amplify the glory of fall foliage at its colorful peak. The greens were slick and maddeningly-hard to read, corrupting the scorecards of a celebrity-laden field that included Top 50 course-designer Gil Hanse (fifth-ranked Castle Stuart and the incipient Olympics Course in Rio de Janeiro); head professionals Scott Nye (18th-ranked Merion GC, site of the most-recent U.S. Open) and Graeme Lennie (33rd-ranked Balcomie Links); and award-winning actor Richard Kind (Spin City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Good Wife).*

*Unable to perform due to injury — but diligent in their roles as cart-companions and spectators — were Drama-Desk- and Obie-award-winning actor David Morse (Treme, The Negotiator, John Adams) and legendary links writer and author James W. Finegan (Emerald Fairways and Foam-Flecked Seas).

Tournament play concluded on the ninth green at 4:58 p.m.. At five, a wedding ceremony began between the green and the starter’s shed. That’s so Philadelphia.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the PGA Tour continues it’s inaugural head-start season with the McGladrey Classic on the Seaside Course in Sea Island, Ga. At 7,055 yards, the par-70 layout has a robust 141 slope rating and a designer line that starts with Harry Colt and C.H. Alison (original nine), runs through Joe Lee (Marshside nine) and culminates with Tom Fazio, who directed a 1999 revision. The Seaside Course, aping Merion, uses red wicker baskets instead of hole flags, the difference being that Seaside is public and Merion not so much.

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