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Day 2 of the Potomac Cup: Maryland vs. Virginia - The Cup & the Lip
The title of today's piece comes from Ian Fleming's classic, "Goldfinger." If you like the golf scene in the movie (filmed at England's Stoke Pages Golf Club, an inland parkland course), you have to read the book because you don't get one golf chapter - you get three - and the match instead takes place at St. George's, the Open Championship venue in the south of England. Run don't walk to the bookstore, because there's a reason why Ian Fleming was given the honor of Literary Lion. Not only was he the father of an entire genre - espionage novels - he wrote crisp, lean, athletic prose; yet he also had sparkling word sense that can be pretty when it needed to be, and poignant when it had to be.
The last chapter of the match between Bond and Goldfinger is called "The Cup and the Lip," and that's exactly where Maryland finds itself right now, finally, after four long, terrible years. Not since 2003's one-point squeaker at Rocky Gap has Maryland celebrated on Sunday. But now, holding a 15.5 - 8.5 lead with 13 singles matches to play, a Team Red victory seems a fait accompli.
The talk in the locker rooms and team meeting and the 19th hole was that Maryland looked strong on paper for the first time in years, with great individual players and depth through the line-up. But they play golf for the Potomac Cup, and Virginia's dominance in the alternate-shot format - generally the margin of victory in three of their last four consecutive wins - and their dominance in that format speaks volumes about chemistry between players and shrewd pairings. Virginia seemed to institutionalize level-headed coolness under pressure and embraced doing the little things right. They left too slim a margin for overmatched previous Maryland squads. Moreover, barring a back-loading gaffe in the 2006 singles, Virginia captain Steve Czaban seemed to find the weaknesses in the Maryland pairings and exploit them.
So going into this year, it was simple: If Maryland wanted to win this thing they were going to have to seize it with everything they had, take advantage of every moment of every match. All hands on deck; to arms, battle stations.
Well that's what they did. After racing to an 8-4 Day 1 lead, they survived a second session of alternate shot in the morning before reprising their afternoon romp in the best ball. The star has been Brad Hankey, one of only two undefeated-untied players in the competition (the other is Don Phattiyakul of Virginia). He's won four different matches with four different partners. That's got to be some kind of record. In fact, that's a statistical outlier, it's so unfathomable. Team golf is built on chemistry. It's hard enough to win with one guy, but four that you don't know? If Hankey wins his singles match, and Maryland wins the Cup, he wins the Sherriff Award for Most Outstanding Player.
After Hankey, the rest of the squad is still formidable. Pick your poison. Is it rookies of the year Jeff Lim-Sharpe and Lee Flemister? Don't let their 2-2 records fool you. They got thrown to the lions, having to stop the Potomac Cup undefeated doubles team of Phattiyakul and Chung (team career 5-0-0 in doubles), yet still held tough so the rest of the squad could exploit Virginia's soft underbelly. These guys epitomize the Potomac Cup. Average Joes with good golf skills who want to play for state pride that show up, play hard, make friends and win, baby. Welcome to the rodeo boys. We look forward to seeing you again.
How about Rusty Hall? He's 3-1, and fired off one of the greatest shots in Potomac Cup history to at the end of play on Friday. With the match all square on the 18th and with everyone - players, gallery and media watching - and all eyes fixed firmly on him in the clutch, Hall holed a 110-yard 52-degree wedge, touching off an exuberant celebration. Right there, everyone sensed that Maryland had control. More importantly, Team Red sent a message that they weren't going to fold in the crucible of high-level team golf, not when intrastate bragging rights are at stake. Nerdy government stiffs and good ole boys have been riding them like Big Brown for the last four years. They were not about to lose focus.
Both eyes have been on the prize and they've never wavered this weekend. One reason is Vance Welch. He's a rock as a player and a leader. A true prizefighter; Welch will take on anyone, heedless of how bloody his nose might get. No fact defined the course of this Cup than this reversal: Where normally Maryland is partying and Virginia is working hard, this year Maryland was dotting every "I" and crossing every "T," while Virginia has been too busy drinking beer and making noise. On the eve of the Cup, shortly before midnight, Vance Welch was marking yardage cards for every Maryland player, while Virginians were in the parking lot making snide comments like, "Many people don't know the difference between sympathy and empathy. They'll get neither from us."
I'm checking back with you now. How did that work out?
Now we can chalk that up to two things. First, it's rookie exuberance. Part of bonding with the team is talking trash; it's an athlete thing. But rookies do best in this competition - as any - by walking the walk before talking the talk. Look at Lim-Sharpe and Flemister. They join a long, well-pedigreed line of unforgettable rookies: Peter Badawy, J.J. Occi, and the tandem of Dae Chung and Don Phattiyakul - "Skinny and Phatty" as they're called - and others who've embraced the ethos of team golf and immersed themselves in this competition. "We're having a blast," Flemister said simply. "The golf has been unbelievable and the camaraderie is even better, especially watching Dae and Don up close all day."
Nevertheless, the second reason the rookie's mistake should be overlooked is because nobody on his team showed him any better. After Skinny and Fatty and Frank Romano - all he does is beat the other team's best player - after Romano, the most visible member of Team Blue was Rob LaPointe, a great guy, but not the cornerstone of a winning squad. The gritty, scrappy Aussie epitomizes the fun of the event, but he needs more backup. He flourishes when he can be "supporting cast," helping loosen up the team while leaders like Badawy and McIntosh, Matt Himes, Romano, and Skinny and Phatty would do the heavy lifting. But it's too, much to ask a 4 handicap to beat scratch players, and when it was their turn for fireworks to end the day on 18 on Saturday, and when they absolutely had to get one of two balls up and down from the fringe - an easy feat, you or I would be able to two-putt one of those balls from between 20 and 30 feet - they folded. They both three-jacked.
"We desperately have to have a half here," lamented Czaban before LaPointe hit a putt halfway there, and then Gallagher lipped out twice. It was terribly unfair what happened to Gallagher, he hit more than half of the hole both times.
Still, let's not lose the point: When the top of the order couldn't inspire the rookies - who plummeted to 1-8-1 over the first two days - Virginia was left looking for someone, anyone, to lead with their golf clubs. That being said, you watch. Next year, LaPointe will be back, hopefully with Gallagher. The event is cyclical. When Virginia gets depth, the "Aussie Aussie Aussie!" act will work a lot better.
Even so, Team Blue has a breakout star in Phattiyakul. Over two years he is a combined 7-0-1. With Chung as his doubles partner, they are a perfect 5-0-0 and overall combined, they are 13-2-1. Phatty even won the annual one-club challenge twice - he's the only player to do that - sharing the title with Peter Badawy last year and Steve Czaban this year. Perhaps Skinny and Phatty's other nickname is better - the Silent Assassins. Sadly, we lose Chung, who moves to Irvine, Calif., later this year.
Virginia had other moments too. Gallagher and Jason Dunn did defeat Welch and Rusty Hall in an alternate-shot match Saturday. "I heard rumors last night we were the sacrificial lambs," said Dunn impishly. But as we all know rumor loves to makes the hearer's flesh creep, and in the light of day, the shadows aren't as long, not even near the Blue Ridges and he and Gallagher can dine out on that win for many future Potomac Cups.
Additionally, Steve "The Thing" Nolin and Mark Waslo were down three with three to play, but won the final three holes to scrape out a half when Maryland's John Sholtz and Rusty Pies bogeyed the last two. But that win was a last hurrah, not the start of a comeback. Maryland won the best-ball sessions 10-2 in what will likely prove the margin of victory. "We got away with one there," said a relieved Nolin. "But we missed a lot of putts we should have made. It's funny the twists and turns this game takes."
The twists and turns have been a long and winding road for Team Red Captain Jeff Sheehan. He's been routed in the Cup, and he's mounted epic comebacks only to fall short. But this year, just as the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship seemed to swap identities (the hard one was easier, the easier one set-up ridiculously hard), so too did the two teams swap identities. With more depth and a workmanlike ethic, Maryland has surged ahead of Virginia, which usually epitomizes camaraderie and altruism.
Could Virginia come back? Anything's possible. But here's one final stat to digest with your bacon-and-egg sandwich. The combined records of five of Czaban's first six men out of the gate Sunday morning for Virginia are 3-14-2. They will face a combined record of 12-5-3 for Maryland. Vance Welch, Bagger Vance as he's forever known in Cup lore, carries the battle standard into the heat of the fray, leading off for Team Red. He, Flemister, Hall, Sholtz, Bill Jenner and Pete DeTemple will try to end it early.
So, as the sun sets tonight over the mountains that give Blue Ridge Shadows Golf Club its name, as one by one the stars wink on and gaze down as they have since Genesis, as the course is left alone to the hum and zing and tinkle of the crickets, it looks as though Maryland will taste victory for the first time in four years. Virginia players even said so in the bar late last night.
Maryland players weren't around to hear that sentiment though. They were fast asleep, dreaming of the cup and the lip, and the taste of champagne and sweet, sweet victory. It's close, oh so close.
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.