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Birdies, Blissful Skies & Buoyant Hearts Open the 99th Travis Invitational
Garden City Golf Club truly was an emerald 'neath the blissful skies Friday morning, as the sun shone as if it had just been born while the golfers contested the stroke-play qualifier of the 99th Travis Invitational. Birdies were the coin of the realm as 15 of the 16 championship flight qualifiers shot level-par 73 or better.
Garden City member Mike Confort was the first player to tee off in the event, but his 3-under 70 held up all day. He won medalist honors on the strength of an astonishing five consecutive birdie run on the back nine. Four former Travis Invitational champions join him in the 16-player bracket, including defending champion Mike Kelley and two-time winner George Zahringer.
The jubilant sunshine was a welcome surprise as forecasts called for downpours all weekend. The Travis - always contested on the anniversary of the club's founding - has a history of "one day cold, one day rain, one nice day." Players, members and organizers all surmised that the favorable weather made the course four to five strokes easier than last year, when just two competitors broke par.
Leading the birdie barrage, Confort rifled off five straight, including bookend birdies on the back side's par-5s, 13 and 17. He'll start match play against another Garden City member and former Travis champion, Tim Schmitt, who survived a seven-man playoff for the final spot in the bracket.
"I want the ball in the clutch, that's what great players do," an elated Schmitt said after hitting a pitching wedge to six feet on the second playoff hole, and watching the other six competitors miss opportunities before making the putt. "I told my caddie inside left," he later explained. "But he said 'no, inside right,' and I made sure I hit it firm. I didn't give it a chance to miss." Pouring in the six-footer touched off a celebration from the huge gallery ringing the green and signaled the end of the day's play.
Although the two-hole playoff drew the most spectators, two-time former champion George Zahringer III raised the most eyebrows, firing a 1-under 72, and claiming the 10th seed. Zahringer's success was a walk down memory lane for members and media alike, as his surge echoed the grand memories of his back-to-back Travis wins in 1983-84. A win this year would set a tournament record for longest time between victories.
"I took six months off this winter, and I think it kept me mentally fresh," Zahringer explained in his media center interview. "Normally I try to keep myself in good shape, so it's just some conditioning, some rest, and some luck, and never having had any injuries. The rest helps both my mind and my body." He'll face Brian Komline in the morning matches with a possible match against defending champion and second seed Michael Kelley looming, should Kelley defeat 15 seed Roger Holt.
Indeed, Kelley picked up where he left off last year, playing yet another outstanding round over the Devereux Emmet-designed course. After balancing two birdies with two bogeys over the first 16 holes, Kelley hit a 5-wood approach at the par-5 17th to 20 feet and rolled in the eagle putt.
"There was a little more pressure on me this year being defending champion," Kelley said candidly, surprising the assembled media, who regard he as one of the most phlegmatic amateurs on the circuit. "I've been playing poorly, and I haven't practiced much," he admitted. "I haven't played a good round this year, and practice wasn't spurring results, so I wasn't confident coming into today. But I drove it much well and that was the key." He then brightened as he recalled the details of his round. "I only missed two fairways, and I hit 16 greens. Once I got started, and made early birdies, [on one and four] I realized I could shoot a good score, and the eagle on 17 topped off the day."
Though playing a 36-hole day golfers dream about, the day before the competition still had Kelley searching for answers, a late night practice afterwards, and an early morning adjustment today proved the difference. "I played Garden City yesterday morning, then National Golf Links of America in the evening, but still was struggling." He paused for a moment, flashing the grin of the cat that ate two canaries. "But I figured out this morning that my alignment was the problem. It was too closed, so I worked hard yesterday evening and this morning and it paid off."
Friar's head member Ken Bakst was the final former champion to make the championship bracket. His 1-under 72 was a quiet round, with just two birdies against one bogey. "The rough out here is legendary, and it got me on six," he explained, a hint of exasperation flashing across his face. "I drove into it, then fluffed a wedge and failed to get back to the fairway." Still, the resulting bogey was his only blemish.
Several big names fell just short of the championship flight, including six players with 1-over 74, but that just means several marquee match-ups in the "First Flight," named after Devereux Emmet. Garden City member and club bon vivant Merrick McQuilling was quite satisfied with the first flight. "Some guys are playing to win, but I'm just playing to play more golf this weekend," he said, as he rushed to mark his ball on the vicious slope of the 15th green before it could trickle away.
"I'm glad to make the weekend so I can avoid the 'honey-do list.' All weekend long it would have been 'honey do this and honey do that,' but now I'm on the golf course." The jovial McQuilling, venerated by his fellow members for his puckish humor, will battle the always dangerous Hans Albertson, an alumnus of storied Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. In other hotly anticipated first-flight matches, Jed Raynor will battle Ken Dardis, and golf course design expert Jamie Slonis - winner of the fifth flight last year - will battle Albert Oh.
Such parity is a tribute to both the quality of the field, and the excellent course set-up and conditioning. Players and members repeatedly praised tournament chair Pat Fogarty for his diligence and dedication. "Pat Fogarty and every single member and employee have done a tremendous job," Zahringer said approvingly. "They know they are stewards of a precious legacy here and they take their charge seriously, and perform their duties to protect the tournament and the course without any thought of personal benefit. Moreover, the removal of trees years ago brought the course back to its links origins."
Ken Bakst agreed. "The members treat us with incredible grace, opening up their course to amateurs for an entire week and welcoming us as though we are members," he declared. "Their love of the tournament sets an incredible mood, and then this great old strategic course - an old course that makes you think - is just so much fun to play because, like National, the wind makes it play different every day." Bakst, who speaks about golf course architecture with remarkable intelligence, admires Garden City for its strategies and options. "Take the first hole, a great opening hole. It has so many options: drive the green, hit an iron, or a wood, you're thinking right from the first shot, and it's that way all day. Plus the wind changes the conditions dramatically. Both here and at National you always have to ask 'how do I wanna play this hole today?' "
Fourth seed Gerard Connelly agreed. "This course reminds me of Lahinch, Portmarnock, and Ballybunion," the Irish ex-pat said reverently. "The whole layout, from pot bunkers to mounding and the different types of recovery and approach shots you can hit make it feel like an Irish course in the middle of Long Island. It's a thinking mans course."
"Don't forget the members," added Kevin Hammer, the sixth seed, and a semifinalist last year. Not only do they make you feel at home, but they embrace the tradition and the history of the club, the course, and the tournament. That's what makes the Travis so special. They protect the history. They make the effort not to change for change's sake, and that's a rare but great thing."
Indeed buoyant hearts, good cheer, and camaraderie were ever present. Not even last year's deluge could dampen the warm glow that the members have for their historic course: a course of stoic dignity, yet banshee winds, a course of cunning design, yet warm embrace, and a course of ancient splendor, yet modern importance.
Moreover, the experience of playing in a world-class event over a crown jewel in American golf's diadem is a memory in which each player delights. After golf, they'll return to their offices, straight jobs and families; there are no Lear jets, yachts called "Privacy," masseuses, and courtesy cars in their lives. Some are carpenters, some are bankers, some are in real estate, some are in oil. Shoot, after firing his medalist-winning round, Mike Confort was in his suit and off to his Long Island City printing company office faster than you could say "3-under."
But that is the ethos of the Travis. It's about guys that are just like you and me, only better golfers. Bakst started playing at age eight with cut-down clubs, Connelly would play till he couldn't see the ball any more, and Kelley had to be torn away from the walls of memorabilia to make his media center interview. For these players, it's valor without renown, a rare virtue embraced by only the most altruistic of people. But then again, that's what the Travis and Garden City are all about: Quiet dignity, solace amidst the traffic of the world. Then again, that's what golf is all about too.
* One and the par-5s were the birdie holes today.
(1) Mike Confort vs. (16) Tim Schmitt
(8) Kenny Bakst vs. (9) Joel Lulla
(4) Gerard Connolly vs (13) Kurt Kashevaroff
(5) Hunter Semels vs. (12) Joe Sommers
(2) Michael Kelley vs. (15) Roger Hoit
(7) Brian Komline vs (10) George Zahringer III
(3) Kevin Gai vs (14) Peter Zurkow
(6) Kevin Hammer vs. (11) Chris Lange
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.