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Biggest Guy, Bigger Heart: Bel Air's Reneker Takes Medalist Honors to Open 100th Travis Invitational
He's 6'6", 300 pounds, he's redder than a Rock Lobster, and he's a hatchet as sharp as the Devil himself. Now with a dazzling 6-under 67 to open the 100th Travis Invitational, Bel Air Country Club's David Reneker is also the co-holder of the competitive course record at fabled Garden City Golf Club in New York.
"It's unbelievable, I can't describe it. I never once thought about doing this," Reneker conceded, still trying to come to grips with the enormity of the feat, which included a stunning nine birdies. "I'm a history junkie and all the old courses resonate with me, but this place and this tournament are especially magical to me, and to become a part of that history is just staggering. It's a top experience in my life, 100 percent," he concluded, beaming.
Indeed, all Garden City Golf Club was elated for the colorful, affable Reneker, and the ovation that went up from the members when his score was posted was the loudest cheer - of many - all day. They loved Reneker before this for his sharp wit and jolly humor. In fact, while he was out on the course one helpful member told the assembled media, "Make sure to talk to Reneker. He's a really great quote." But now he belongs to the ages and the members, perhaps the greatest stewards of golf tradition this side of the Atlantic, will toast Reneker and his epic round for years.
"This is a great and remarkable achievement for him," said tournament chair and co-record holder Patrick Fogarty. "For him to go out and card nine birdies when everyone else was playing defensive golf was magnificent."
"It was ridiculous," added Reneker excitedly, and indeed it was. He rolled in twisting putts from three different area codes, (35! 40! 45 feet!), he lasered irons to one foot ("I flew, stuck it," he said), and he flopped wedges from the deck of a sinking ship to within inches of the cup. Do that in a Texas money game and they'll shoot you on general principle. His round was so mercurial he didn't make a par until the par-5 7th, bogeying Nos. 1 and 5, and making birdies on 2, 3, 4, and 6. He turned in at 3-under 34 and then made four more birdies (Nos. 10, 12 - a 4-iron to 18 inches - 14 and 17) against one bogey (15) coming home.
Even his pars were zany. "13 was comical," he explained, brimming with energy. "I killed my drive, right up into the teeny neck where the bunker juts out, then hit an insane hybrid that almost hit the stick but went over the green by one foot. I was only 20 feet away but the rough was way worse than a bunker. I had to gouge it out and then missed the putt. It was the worst par I made all day."
Now Reneker enters into the weekend's match play, which has been a graveyard for No. 1 seeds not named David Eger. In the last two years medalists Alan Specht and Garden City member Mike Confort lost to the 16th seed. Indeed, Reneker's quadrant of the draw looks like what soccer fans would call a "Group of Death," referring to a qualifying bracket or division stacked with quality teams and which will see the early exit of a perennial powerhouse. Reneker faces Brad Shaw (even-par 73) who, along with 14th seed Jed Raynor (73) and 15th seed T.J. Brudzinski (73) survived a three-hole, seven-men-for-three-spots playoff to make the championship bracket.
The winner then faces the winner of the 8-9 match, which looks to be a highlight reel waiting to happen. Eoghan (pronounced "Owen") O'Connell, the unflappable Irish ex-pat and creative shotmaker who won the 2006 Travis, faces another perennial powerhouse, the steely-nerved, iron-willed Kevin Hammer. Both players shot 1-under 72. Hammer finished birdie-par-birdie-eagle-par to zoom past a logjam of players at 73 and avoid the playoff. O'Connell made three birdie putts of over 20 feet on Garden City's cunningly deceptive greens. Additionally, the two are great friends, and they traded good-natured zingers about each other's masculinity and physiognomy over lunch on the veranda.
"The invite to this event is always the highlight of my year, but this being the 100th Travis, I really wanted to play in the Championship Flight," said O'Connell, as he eased into a comfortable chair for is media center interview. "Not only is this golf the way it's meant to be, but it's also full of history. They preserve both the golf course and the game's traditions."
"It really is a brilliant golf course," agreed Ben Hayes of Scottsdale, Ariz., whose 2-under 71 secured him the fifth seed. "The greens are tough to read and hole locations are really challenging. There is so much undulation and micro-movement, it's hard to make birdies. The bunkers are penal, the wind is hard to gauge, and you have to choose your line carefully, then execute, but that's what a great course is supposed to do, challenge you."
In Hayes's bracket - which will face the winner of the Reneker-led bracket in Sunday morning's semifinals, Hayes, who played in the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, will face 12th seed and 2009 semifinalist Roger Hoit (72). Fourth seed Jay Blumenfeld (70) squares off against 13th seed Tom Yellin (72).
In the other half of the draw, Daniel Russo's 4-under 69 secured him the second seed. He balanced five birdies (4, 5, 7, 9 and 17) against a lone bogey at 13. Russo, like most of the leaders, took advantage of the par-5s, making birdies at three of the four.
"I've only played here twice and the other time was yesterday. I also haven't been playing all that great. In fact, I've been struggling," he admitted. "But I made a few putts early and I drove the ball well."
Russo also made a pre-round adjustment which triggered a burst of consistency. "I was crouched over, so I tried to get more upright," he explained. It worked. "I drove the ball in the fairway, and I didn't do anything stupid. You have to be precise here because there's big numbers waiting on every hole, whether you get off the fairway into the tough stuff or above the hole and are left putting defensively."
"That's one of the things that makes this place great," he adds, sitting back as if fondly reflecting. "It's stood the test of time. It's held majors in the past, and without much change at all, it's still difficult, but fair. Besides the members being so open-armed and welcoming, making it feel like it's your home course"
"Exactly," agrees 6th seed Mike Reardon (1-under 72). "Before I left the house for the weekend, my wife Valerie said 'Go have fun! It's your favorite place.' " It must be, as he roared out of the gate with three front nine birdies. A faster pace and less aggressive mindset led to three bogeys in the last six holes.
Interestingly, Reardon lost the tip of his middle finger of his left hand. "I was 2 years old and it got caught in an ironing board." It still didn't stop him form qualifying for two U.S. Amateurs, Oak Hill in 1998 and East Lake in 2001.
Reardon faces 11th seed Chuck del Priore, while third seed Scott Mackesy faces 14th seed Jed Raynor. Russo plays 15th seed T.J. Brudzinkski with the winner facing the winner of 10th seeded jay Crowley versus seventh seed Eoin O'Connor (another Irishman who also pronounces his name "Owen." No relation . . . though they did play together and shoot a pair of 72s).
So as the sun set over the spire of St. Paul's church, the members and players rejoiced together long into the warm spring night, their hearts as buoyant as Christmas Day. Old friends and new, from near and far, young and old, trading stories, just as they have for a century.
With the right kind of eyes, you can the ghosts of 100 years there with them, reveling much the same, united with them in their love of the game, their iridescent jewel of a golf course, and their noble, altruistic history. The Grand Old Club, The Grand Old Man, the Grand Old Amateur still stands, noble edifice that it is, enduring, uniting and inspiring. Happily, it looks as thought the next 100 years will be much the same.
News, Notes & Quotes
* The members, resplendent in their Garden City green jackets, watched as 90-year-old John Betz, Jr., who has seen 60 Travis Invitationals, hit the ceremonial opening tee shot off the first tee. With nothing but yawning pits of fescue and heather as far as the eye could see, he nailed it: center-cut, high and long. The club rang with the cheering.
* Most of the leaders got off to fast starts, with Nos. 1, 3, and 4 yielding many birdies.
* Though most of the day was joyous sunshine, the early morning saw a little of everything: cold, cloudy, a flash downpour and then sunshine. The later tee times had much higher scores as the first half of the players to finish rarely fared better than even-par. The second half zoned in much better in the sunshine, with plenty of sub-par rounds.
* Although he boldly played his ball out of the water on 18 in the three-hole playoff, Brian Komline still made double0bogey and dropped into the fourth seed in the first flight. A total of 72 golfers will compete in five other match play flights as well over the weekend.
* Tomorrow, Chef Tony will prepare a special dinner for the past champions in honor of the 100th Anniversary. He and his meat cleaver are also expected to make a cameo appearance during the Sunday awards dinner and celebration.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.