Riverdance - A Shift of Power in the Potomac Cup?

By: Jay Flemma

He's 12-3 in Potomac Cup play, and played in the U.S. Amateur, Mid-Amateur and Public Links. He shot a mind-boggling 7-under par over 12 holes in his singles match last year to lambaste Maryland's Brad Hankey 7 & 6 from the same tees the pros played two weeks later in the PGA Tour's 84 Lumber Classic. That virtuoso performance earned him the nickname "The Freak." Now, Vance Welch's move across the Potomac River to Maryland and subsequent membership on the Maryland Potomac Cup squad has Team Virginia seeing red.

"Traitor!" screeched one Virginian who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He better sleep with one eye open or else we'll snatch him from his room and leave him on a lonely roadside in West Virginia."

"It's a tough loss. He's a gamer," admitted Virginia captain and tournament founder Steve Czaban, a Fox Sports Net broadcaster. "But he's one guy and we have a team full of great players. If Tiger can't ensure a U.S. Ryder Cup win, neither can Welch do it alone. This is a team event and it's completely different than a stroke-play tournament."

Nevertheless, as the seventh annual Ryder Cup-style matches between the best amateurs in Maryland and Virginia begin this Friday, Virginia, who own a 4-2 series edge and have won three straight cups, find themselves in a strange position - underdogs. Handicapping experts installed Maryland a favorite by 1.5 points, marking the first time in three years that Virginia was not expected to prevail.

"Even with Welch, I think we are still underdogs," remarked colorful Maryland captain, Jeff Sheehan, as he pulled a long drag on an Arturo Fuente Hemingway Signature cigar.

"Team Red is really excited to have Mr. Welch on our squad, a win-win situation as we get him on our side and he's away from them," agreed co-captain Pedro Carrasco. "Nevertheless they are a strong team and it will be a tough competition."

Other Marylanders weren't even aware of the change. "Who the hell is Vance Welch?" asked red team member Ron Thomas quizzically.

"You don't know anybody on this team, do you?" roared Sheehan.

"Sorry, Cappy," Thomas cooed meekly, cringing sheepishly and holding in a giggle.

Virginia knows who he is though. If they want to win that fourth cup in a row, they'll have to have an answer for Welch. They'll have to go right through him.

Scott Inman could be one man called on by Czaban to try to stop the juggernaut called Welch. Inman is no stranger to intense pressure. With Maryland mounting a furious rally to tie the matches after being down a staggering five points at the start of the singles, he defeated Carrasco, the beating heart of the Maryland squad, who triggered the rally with a rousing, memorable pep talk the night before. Carrasco owned a 7-1-1 record prior to his defeat at Inman's hands.

A cup rookie, Inman sank the cup-clinching putt on the par-5 16th hole to close out the match 3 & 2. The humble Inman, winner of the Joe Hardy Award given to the most outstanding player of the matches, later said, "It was my first rodeo and I was just grateful not to get bucked off." He also won the Belle Haven Four-Ball title in 2006 with partner Greg Hamilton. They shot 8-under 208 for 54 holes.

Another solid choice would be Ross McIntosh, a South African ex-pat who was the 2001 Virginia State Amateur champion and who tied PGA legend Greg Norman's course record 67 in the Northern Virginia Amateur. McIntosh has a solid 3-1-1 Potomac Cup record and could be the only man not intimidated by Welch. What a marquee match-up that would be in the Sunday singles, especially with the cup in the balance. "My god," uttered one magazine editor breathlessly. "Could you imagine the two of them duking it out on Sunday coming down the stretch at Nemacolin? McIntosh vs. Welch, that would be incredible."

Welch was typically humble, downplaying the redistricting. "It had to be done. It's only fair that I play for the state in which I reside. It shows that the tournament takes its excellent reputation for integrity seriously," he noted candidly. He then showed his loyalty to Sheehan, as does the entire Maryland team, which follows him into battle fearlessly, by praising his new skipper. "Last year, captain Sheehan nearly pulled off not only the biggest comeback in P Cup history, but maybe the biggest in team golf." Maryland was down 14.5-9.5 entering the Sunday singles, but rallied to tie the matches before bowing late by a single point on Inman's clutch putt.

Of course Maryland has depth as well. Welch can only go 5-0-0 at best. With 14 men per squad, Maryland needs 19.5 points to wrest the cup from Team Blue and take it across the river to the state where, "If you can dream it, we can tax it."

John Rhodes, whose puritanical work ethic may match Welch's but seems out of sorts with the rest of the characters on Captain Sheehan's team, was a PGA assistant pro from 1992-98. Fiery Al Aldana forms the second half of "The Spanish Armada" with Carrasco, a doubles team equally dominant as their Ryder Cup counterparts Olazabal and Ballesteros. Even Ron Thomas, a Grateful Dead-blaring, prank-playing, pastiche-course assistant has dug deep to rally to win Potomac Cup matches, most notably against Virginia captain Czaban. Maryland has depth and momentum, but Virginia has three consecutives victories for inspiration.

Though the ribbing between the sides is non-stop, beneath the surface there is a deep respect and, indeed, admiration between the squads. These are the best amateurs in both states gathered in one place to play for state pride, bragging rights and to taste the highest level of competitive team golf in the U.S. outside of the PGA Tour.

"They promised us we'd feel like it was the Ryder Cup and it did," said Thomas who, along with his team, looked on glumly as Virginia celebrated with their flag and fans on the 18th green last year. "To those of you who are new, get ready for the best golf weekend of your life."

Begun by Czaban in 2001 to stir up the interstate rivalry further, the tournament has grown exponentially in terms of participation and sponsorships. Each of the last two years, approximately 300 players played in two grueling qualifiers to earn one of 14 spots on each side. Participants play as two-man teams.

The event, helped by significant radio and internet coverage, attracted the attention of Nemacolin Woodlands Resort owner Joe Hardy - the visionary behind the 84 Lumber Classic, who asked Czaban to have Nemacolin's Pete Dye-designed Mystic Rock course offer a "neutral site" to host the tournament. "He promised he'd make us feel like we held the Ryder Cup and he delivered in the biggest way," explained Czaban gratefully. "We are deeply thankful for his kindness, belief in the tournament and generosity. He helped us take the event to the highest level."

Czaban may be wrong about calling it the highest level. He may mean "the highest level so far," but that's a good thing. With the Middle Atlantic PGA Section running the tournament and with excellent sponsorships, the tournament is already the gold standard by which team events are measured. Yet, even though no other team event comes close to the stature of this event - with outstanding organization, fierce competition, and an excellent reputation, the sky is still the limit. Who knows how soon it will be before the Golf Channel and the larger media outlets bring the event to the entire country?

What's not to like? This is a tournament where anyone - even a bogey golfer who has a good partner and gets hot one day - can find himself playing for a his state's greater glory. With first-rate organization, PGA support, significant media exposure, recognition and, most importantly, the egalitarian chance for even a Sunday hacker to play his way into the field, this one-of-a-kind event is destined for greater renown. It's also the kind of tournament that makes the game look good.

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.