Furious Virginia Rally Falls Short, Maryland Wins Potomac Cup 19.5-16.5

By: Jay Flemma

Maryland won their third Potomac Cup and first in four years Sunday, but not before a rout turned into a nail-biter. After surging to a huge 15.5-8.5 lead after two days of doubles play, Virginia mounted a furious comeback in the singles matches over the back nine at Blue Ridge Shadows Golf Club in Fort Royal, Va., before bowing late, 19.5-16.5. It was Maryland's first Cup win on Virginian soil since the first event in 2001. The overall series stands at 5-3 Virginia.

Maryland needed only three points on Sunday to wrest the Cup from Team Blue (as Virginia is affectionately know to fans). They got four, but just barely. Rusty Pies, Cup rookie Jeff Lim-Sharpe, and John Sholtz all won singles matches to help Team Red avoid becoming known for the biggest blown lead in Cup history. Sholtz's victory over Aussie ex-pat Rob LaPointe secured the Cup clinching point. Although Sholtz was down one going to the 17th tee, he seized the opportunity by winning the hole when LaPointe, who led the match all day, left the door open by hooking his drive deep into the woods and making bogey. LaPointe then made chopped salad out of the 18th for the second day in a row; he found the water encircling the 18th green not once, but twice, finally conceding the hole and the match. Maryland's Vance Welch and Pete DeTemple each earned a half point with drawn matches against Virginia's Frank Romano and Don Phattiyakul. Phattiyakul was the only competitor to finish the tournament undefeated; he won four doubles matches, three with Virginia's Dae Chung.

"It's good to win for Cappy [Maryland Captain Jeff Sheehan]," said a relieved Welch. "Virginia made a great comeback. I told the boys last night to stay sharp. I told them we can't take it easy, and that those guys are tough, have a lot of pride, and won't quit. Sure enough, Virginia made it a little scary."

That's an understatement. This was a full-blown, red-alert emergency. One minute they were coasting to victory, the next minute Captain Sheehan was storming about the ramparts desperately hoping for reinforcements to arrive. At 12:45, after about nine holes of play, the singles were tied 6-6; it wasn't a question of "if," it was a question of "when." But there's plenty of trouble over the back nine of Blue Ridge Shadows Golf Club, and Maryland seemed to find all of it and at the worst possible time.

"You can see a lot of swings on 11 and 14 with the penal hazards on those holes," assistant golf pro Angela Williams admitted knowingly, raising her eyebrows in respect to how much damage those holes can inflict on a scorecard with their hip high, thick rough. "Also, 18 is a great match-play hole because it's a placement hole," she continued. "It's so straight, but you can drive too far and have an odd yardage and a shot that really tests your distance control because trouble completely surrounds that green." Some players in the tournament found that out the hard way. "87 yards is odd yardage," grumbled one player in agreement after hitting his approach over the green into thick brush and high grass.

So, by 2:00 p.m. the 6-6 deadlock in singles was suddenly a 9-3 bulge in favor of Virginia. "Still, I didn't start to even consider winning until the first Virginia point was in the books. When Jason Dunn finished off Maryland's Bill Jenner 6 and 5, I took my first appraisal of the scoreboard, and I said to myself 'Wow! There are a lot of Blue flags up,' " explained cheerful Team Virginia captain Steve Czaban, also the founder of the Potomac Cup.

"Scott Abell, my co-captain, kept telling me to just hang in there and that the guys would rally and it might get interesting," Czaban said respectfully about his resourceful and shrewd assistant captain. "And the next thing I knew we were in it."

"The next thing I knew," retorted Sheehan, "was that I was begging for a playoff."

Sheehan really was petrified; you could hear it in his voice. "We were slammed in the first six matches that on paper we should have routed," he said as results started to roll in with blue flag after blue flag. Team Blue's Gary Gallagher beat Lee Flemister 2 and 1. Then Virginia's Lee Fields came from behind to Rusty Hall by the same score. When rookie Matt Murphy upset Maryland's Steve Martin, the 15-8.5 lead dwindled to 15.5-12.5, and the news was worse still because Virginia was leading or tied in most matches that were still out on the course. Even two of the best players in the field had to settle for halves. Maryland assistant captain Vance Welch, a veteran of many USGA events, had to scratch and claw to eke out a halve from Virginia's Frank Romano. Pete DeTemple did the same against Phattiyakul.

In a script straight out of Hollywood, the cavalry arrived in the nick of time in the form of Lim-Sharpe and Sholtz. First, Lim-Sharpe, the tournament's rejoinder to Camilo Villegas for his long hair and electric pants, wallpapered Adam Engley 6 and 5. "He had a great tournament for us. He made far more contributions than his 3-2 record indicates," gushed an elated Sheehan. "Jeff's late win was a life preserver to a capsizing lifeboat." That opened the door for Sholtz's late come-from-behind heroics.

As an aside, Sholtz's position at the top of his swing is the zaniest move this side of Jim Furyk's loop-de-loop swing. The Potomac Cup added a new dimension to tournament coverage this year with the unveiling of the "Leinenkugels-Golfdom-Czabe's-cool-camera-Swing-o-nalysis" video swing analyzer. With a rather ample belly - "us fat guys are jolly," quipped Sholtz - video revealed a backswing where the club is actually forward from Sholtz's body, rather than behind him. He needs a further hitch in the giddy-up to redirect it on plane. David Leadbetter would run screaming out of the building if he saw it; even my 73-year-old mom has a more classic swing than Sholtz.

Nevertheless, the results are startling: he pile-drives the ball, producing a low, penetrating ball flight. Sholtz's stunning reversal against LaPointe stopped the furious Virginia rally.

Indeed, Team Blue's comeback was shocking considering that five of their first six players who teed off in the Sunday Singles were a combined 3-14-2 and were facing adversaries with a combined 12-5-3. Sheehan's strategy of front loading should have worked; you never backload a singles. Look at what Happened to Mark James in 1999. He hasn't been seen or heard from again after that gaffe at the Ryder Cup. Czaban almost made that mistake in 2006 when Virginia squandered a gargantuan lead only to rally late for a win. Sheehan made it in 2007, trying to set-up favorable match-ups, but instead sending out too many rookies and weak players. "This year, I wanted to get it over early and hardly any of my lead guys got it done," he said.

Meanwhile Czaban, a master motivator pushed all the right buttons during Saturday night's team meeting. He showed a motivational video to team, an inspiring montage of iconic sports moments: Flutie's Hail Mary against Miami, Nicklaus's charge at the '86 Masters, Michael Jordan's legendary playoff buzzer-beating series ender over Craig Ehlo, Christian Laettner's shot vs. Kentucky, the 1980 U.S. hockey team, Watson's chip-in at the '82 U.S. Open, Payne Stewart, Dwight Clark, the '86 Mets and, of course, Justin Leonard at the 99 Ryder Cup.

"I told them this is a team event, that point cannot be driven home enough," Czaban said with fierce conviction. "Matches can turn around at any time, so never give up. You will have ups and downs. You don't have to play great all weekend, just well enough in the clutch. Things will not always go according to the game plan."

That's for certain. Czaban confided that he wanted to go into the Sunday singles no less than two points down. "When we got behind, I told them keep this tight till Sunday afternoon. That didn't happen, but maybe that was for the best," he surmised. "They thought we were out, but nevertheless, nobody wants to lose in singles. They bore down, played for state and personal pride, and the next thing we knew we were in it."

Playing for state and personal pride, that's what the Potomac Cup is all about. It's the premiere amateur intrastate golf challenge in the country because it's egalitarian. Anyone with a partner, a dream and $300 can take their shot at one of two qualifiers and find themselves wearing the red or blue of their team, playing against some of the finest amateurs in the country: college stars, budding tour players, seasoned amateur competitors, and country club champions. Such an environment, state pride, phenomenal golf, impeccable organization, and a fiery border war, will inspire anyone to dig deep.

Of course Virginia didn't crack. Spirit is three-fourths of the remedy and Czaban knows how to get the best from anyone. Moreover, the excitement and reputation of the tournament have grown every single year.

"What a blast," said Lee Fields enthusiastically. "Everything about the weekend was first class: the competition was tough, the course was a challenge, the people were great, and the beer was cold and delicious." Fields's singles win against Hall was his first win and full point of the competition and he echoed Czaban's sentiments. "I feel like I contributed."

Virginia's Steve Nolin agreed. "What terrific competition. These guys are all so good, you have to scratch and claw to the very end to get a win."

The friendly Nolin won over his teammates with a little self-deprecating humor. After being dubbed "The Thing" for his remarkable resemblance to the character from "The Fantastic Four" and hearing jokes about it all weekend, he made the room fall apart laughing with his media center interview. "We lost this year, but next year, it's clobberin' time!"

Still Nolin, who amassed a 2-1-1 record, takes home more than memories; he was the only player to defeat Maryland's Brad Hankey, winner of the Sheriff Award, presented to the tournament's most outstanding player. "I'd rather have the Cup than beat the Sheriff Award winner. Too bad I can't wrestle for the Cup."

Hankey also symbolizes another virtue of the Potomac Cup: the chance for redemption. Two years ago he absorbed an epic defeat when Vance Welch, playing for Virginia when he lived there, beat him 7 and 6 in a singles match. "When you Google my name, that's the first thing that comes up," he explained good-naturedly. "My friends all razz me and even my wife sneered, 'nice work.' This feels good," he finished holding aloft the statuette of a wrangler on a bucking bronco. Hankey went 4-1-0 for the weekend, winning four doubles matches with four different partners.

There were other great stories as well, all forged by ordinary sports fans and avid golfers like you. Gary Gallagher is a pilot. Lee Flemister makes clocks. Rob LaPointe works at a bar and grill, Welch runs the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. They come from so many different backgrounds, but for one weekend, they are the region's biggest golf stars, the subjects of hours of sports talk radio banter, sport page columns and Internet blogs. "It's our Ryder Cup," said Vance Welch as he drank from the Cup. And we'll bleed red or blue to win it."

"More than that," added Sheehan as Team red posed for a victory photo. "We drank from the Cup. The dust of four dry years is gone."

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.