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Red Storm: Maryland Seizes First Potomac Cup Lead in Three Years
As fog slowly burns away from the first tee at Blue Ridge Shadows Golf Course in Fort Royal, Va., captain Jeff Sheehan finds himself in an unfamiliar position: his Maryland amateur golf team leads the Potomac Cup for the first time in three years. The jocular, ruddy-faced Sheehan - known simply as "Cappy" to his team - breathed a sigh of relief as Maryland survived the morning modified alternate shot format without the carnage of the past two years, then rode both Cup rookies and savvy veterans in the afternoon best-ball matches to power en route to an 8-4 lead after the first day of play.
The morning matches were seesaw affairs. Team Red was down in four of six matched early, but scratched out a 3-3 tie before the lunch break. Each team won two matches, lost two matches and tied two matches. The best tilt of the morning was a battle of Potomac Cup rookies. Maryland's Jeff Lim-Sharpe of Silver Spring, the Potomac Cup rejoinder to Camilo Villegas with his long dark hair and electric-blue slacks, and Lee Flemister of Rockville defeated Virginia's Adam Engley and Matt Murphy 2 and 0.
"I think those two may be stars," gushed an obviously pleased Cappy as the pair played with the savvy and poise of veterans. He's right: the chemistry between the two seems more akin to partners who have several years experience together, not several months.
"We've played as a team since the start of the calendar year," Lim-Sharpe explained. "We played terribly in the Washington Metro Four-ball, but we had a great day at the Westfield's qualifier."
"We like playing together, and we know each other's games really well," added Flemister, as the tandem finished off a 4 and 3 afternoon best ball win to go 2-0 for the day. "We play well as a team because we treat any bad shot as just another shot. We don't get down on ourselves, it, we just go hit it again." The pair first met when they were randomly put together at their home course, Blue Mash in Olney, Md.
With rookies gladly taking on as much challenge as they could handle, Sheehan got an unexpected boost in his line-up, and the energy was felt in other matches. Playing directly behind Lim-Sharpe and Flemister, Maryland Cup veterans Brad Hankey and Rusty Hall smeared wise-cracking Virginian Rob LaPointe and his wingman, Gary Gallagher, 4 and 3. "We definitely tried to keep up the momentum," said Hankey.
In the anchor match, Cup rookie and well-pedigreed amateur Pete DeTemple and partner Bill Jenner had a late lead, but squandered it on No. 18 to fall into a tie with Virginia's Frank Romano and Mark Vandegrift. Romano sank a meandering 35-foot birdie putt to save the half for Team Blue.
In a shocker, Maryland assistant captain Vance Welch had to survive loose play from partner Dr. Don Meyer to settle for a tie with a seemingly overmatched Virginia side of assistant captain Scott Abell and Cup rookie Lee Fields. Maryland was two up with three to play and looked certain to win the match. But the pair three-putted from 35 feet, while Fields flopped a sand wedge from a vicious lie to 3 inches to steal the 16th hole. Fields then sank a long putt to win the 17th and surge into a tie.
Virginia also tallied two morning wins. "The Silent Assassins," Dae Chung and Don Phattiyakul - two stars from the 2007 Potomac Cup - dispatched Ron Thomas and John Scholtz 5 and 3 to swell their combined record all time in the Potomac Cup to a sparkling 9-2-1. They are 5-1-0 as a doubles team.
Virginia's last point came when Steve Nolin and Mark Laslo overpowered Maryland's Rusty Pies and Dave Amsellum 4 and 3. Purely as an aside, with his chiseled chin, brick-wall torso and the bony plates of his skull standing out in bold relief, Nolin is a dead wringer for The Thing from the "Fantastic Four." Every time he hit a monster drive, you resisted the urge to shout out, "It's clobberin' time!"
Still, for Maryland, a 3-3 draw is a dramatic improvement over the debacles of the last two years. In the last two competitions Maryland lost the alternate-shot format 10.5 to 1.5 and dug themselves early holes from which they could not recover. They are still not out of the woods, as this year tournament organizers scrapped the two-man scramble format and added a second alternate-shot session to further resemble the Ryder Cup. "The Competition Committee made a great decision," said tournament creator and Team Virginia Captain Steve Czaban of Fox Sports. "This speeds up play and avoids dicey drop issues. Additionally, looking at it from the perspective of captain, I can't be unhappy with Team Blue's performance in the format."
He trailed off as he finished that answer, not saying something he definitely implied: it's not just that Virginia played good golf, it's that Maryland seemed to institutionalize losing in that format, much like the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
"Historically, alternate shot has never been our best format, but I am pleased with the first session. Before, it used to be 'get me off this merry-go-round.' Now we are in the game and can try to put the hammer down and make a move. In fact, had [Virginia's] Frank Romano not made that long putt on 18 to save a half, we would have the lead. I feel good going into the afternoon; best ball is our stronger event."
His words proved prophetic. Maryland didn't just beat Virginia in the afternoon session, they wallpapered the room with them, and did it so thoroughly, so completely, that there were no lumps and all the stripes were perfectly vertical, ceiling to floor. Nobody does that anymore, not even the real class decorators. Maryland took five of the six matches, led by Welch and co-captain Ron Thomas early, the rookies in the heart of the order, and some incredible fireworks by Rusty hall late.
Thomas and Sholtz - who were carved up and served as Filet-O-Fish in the morning - crushed Team Blue's Vandegrift and Waslo to open the afternoon best ball matches. Welch and Amsellem followed with a breezy 5 and 3 drubbing of Czaban and Gallagher. Rookies Lim-Sharpe and Flemister continued to have a hot hand, defeating Nolin and Fields 4 and 3. Anchors Bill Jenner and Brad Hankey won as well.
Yet Team Red saved the best for last. Locked in a fierce battle with Frank Romano and Jason Dunn, DeTemple and Rusty Hall came to 18th all square. With both teams watching from the veranda and outracing a thunderstorm to the safety of the clubhouse, Hall holed a 110-yard, 52-degree wedge shot for a walk-off eagle and the win.
Afterward, Hall and DeTemple traded praise. "Rusty played great early and, more importantly, played great late," explained DeTemple, grinning and pulling on a celebratory Leinenkugel Beer, the official libation of the Potomac Cup. "His par saves on one and three kept the match from getting away form us early. Then he worked his magic."
Hall was equally gracious in his media center interview. "My partner played extremely well. His early back-to-back birdies at five and six gave us a two up lead at the turn and the margin we needed to put ourselves in position to win."
It was sweet redemption for Hall, who took a silly penalty on the previous hole that allowed Virginia to tie a match in which Maryland led late. Not realizing his ball was in a hazard, Hall took a swing at the turf in frustration. He had to forfeit the hole, and, since DeTemple's ball had already found the hazard, Virginia climbed into a tie with one hole to play before Hall's late fireworks scuttled any rally.
Phattiyakul and Matt Murphy tallied Virginia's lone point in a 4 and 3 rout of Meyer and Pies. The pair teamed for a sizzling, bogey-free, 4-under par round which featured Phattiyakul netting the only birdie of the entire day at the severely uphill par-3 10th hole.
Nevertheless, Maryland must endure another session of Modified Alternate Shot tomorrow morning. "I'm more excited about my chance in this format than I have been in years, but we're not taking anything for granted," Sheehan said pointedly. "Czaban is too cagey with his pairings and he's a master motivator who knows how to push all the right buttons. It's been a long time since we've been high-fiving in the locker room, but they don't hand out the Cup on Friday, they hand it out on Sunday and there is plenty of golf to play."
Czaban had the exact same sentiments mere minutes later as he faced the assembled media with a somewhat hang-dog expression. After agreeing that the Cup is never won on Friday, he struggled to explain the lethargic afternoon session. "I dunno, it seemed like they were tired, and they didn't have the same energy and spark as in the morning."
Virginia also had to play from behind frequently. "Sholtz and Welch took command of their matches early and coasted. They played lights-out." When asked if they might have been winded by 36 grueling holes of the topsy-turvy terrain and undulating greens of Blue Ridge Shadows Golf Club, Czaban dismissed the thought. "They shouldn't be. We're in better shape than Maryland!"
Perhaps Virginia also feels the loss of two of their best players from last year, Peter Badawy and Ross McIntosh. Between them the tandem went a combined 7-1-0 last year. Badawy, who won the Sheriff Award, given annually by the assembled media to the tournament's most outstanding player, is now on mini-tours as a professional. McIntosh had a conflict that he could not miss. This was the first Cup the South African ex-pat missed since 2004.
Even so, Chung and Phattiyakul have ascended to fill the number one position admirably. "They have serious juju together," laughed Czaban gratefully. "I'm keeping them together for tomorrow. In fact, I'm going to go with personality pairings and put guys with chemistry together, even if they had a rough day today."
I understand the thinking: dance with them that brung ya. "Why flail with experimental pairings - especially from behind - when you have guys that are comfortable together?" asked Czaban rhetorically. "I'm gonna go with repeat parings I know worked in the past . . . and I have something special planned for Chung and Phatti." The Silent Assassins drew Maryland's presently undefeated rookie phenoms, Lim-Sharpe and Flemister, in the anchor match in tomorrow's alternate shot session. "That's the television pairing," Czaban added concisely. "They work as well together as the legendary Detroit Tigers double play combo of Alan Trammel and Lou Whitaker. They'll make something happen."
Even so, they are only one point out of six. Czaban will need more help from them, perhaps from Frank Romano, a seasoned veteran who saves his best for the biggest matches. All he does is win against the best player the other team has got. Someone else will have to elevate his game. Virginia played well with the lead the last three years; now let's see how they do playing from behind.
Meanwhile, someone showed Sheehan an old picture of him celebrating with the Potomac Cup. He reflected on the old snapshot. He is laughing, smiling and holding the cup reverently. "That's a long time ago. I haven't done that in a while, but this is a new year."
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.
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