If it’s May, it must be Philadelphia.
This year, for the 111th time, the Golf Association of Philadelphia conducted the Team Matches, one of the most unusual and special amateur competitions in America. During April and into May, 316 12-man teams from 131 clubs, totaling 3,792 golfers, traveled the region to play competitive matches and enjoy good golf fellowship.
Philadelphia has a very strong golf culture, similar to that found in San Francisco. Talk all you want about the great golf cities in America (New York vs. Chicago, etc.), but the golf spirit found in Philadelphia is unique among major metropolitan areas in the United States.
There are great courses (think Merion, Huntingdon Valley) and terrific players (Jay Sigel, Buddy Marucci, Gordon Brewer). And then there are the Team Matches.
The Matches, known as the Suburban League Matches until 1997, began in 1897 and have been played almost continuously since.
They are as much a rite of spring in Philly as opening day in baseball, and they serve as a unifying force in Philadelphia golf. They provide golfers an opportunity to play other area courses, and they also serve to jump-start the season before spring officially arrives. For six weeks, the team matches are the talk of Philly golf; the spirit is electric.
The process is complicated, so read closely: The elite division is labeled AA. It is broken into four sections, each with four teams. Then there are seven additional divisions, A through F, that also are divided into four-team sections. Division A has eight sections, for a total of 32 teams. Divisions B, C, D and E each have 16 sections. Division F has two sections. Clubs can enter as many teams as they choose and are placed in their handicap-appropriate division. Each team plays a round-robin match with the three other teams in the section. The competition at the lower divisions is quite social; at the higher levels, it is very intense.
On consecutive Sundays, each team fields a lineup of 12 players. Six play a specific club at home, while the other six travel to the other club’s track. Each player competes in an individual match against an opponent and better-ball match with the teammate against the other two players at the same time. The format is Nassau, with a point awarded for the front side, the back side, and the 18. So, in each match, six points are available.
That all constitutes the “regular season.” Then come the playoffs, which took place Saturday. In AA, four clubs played for bragging rights as the champion of this year’s matches. Three players from each team played at each of the four courses, and each player went up against the other three in a Nassau match. Southern New Jersey’s Little Mill CC, riding the momentum of a return to the AA division, surprised everyone this year, outpointing Merion GC, Tavistock CC and Fox Hill CC for the club’s first title and a year’s worth of trash talking around the region.
In the other divisions, lower-ranked teams from one division square off against higher-ranked teams from the division below them. This typical ladder challenge process determines the makeup of next year’s matches.
Can you imagine the documentation process before personal computers and the internet? GAP Executive Director Mark Peterson can. When he started at the association as an intern, his job was to get a second fax machine and work all Sunday night as the faxes from each club came in with the results. He and his team would then spend the next three days updating results so as to get them in the Wednesday afternoon mail, so that players knew where to be the following weekend. Now, the club pro simply enters the results into the GAP web site, and the results are 95 percent computed Sunday night.
Veteran Philly golfer and former USGA Executive Committee member Craig Ammerman describes the Team Matches as “Fabulous, just fabulous.”
Ammerman speaks fondly about the one day each year that is invariably awful … cold, wet, and windblown. That’s called “Team Match weather,” and you have to play, no excuses. Also, the ball is played down, unless ground conditions are really bad.
Huntingdon Valley CC has won the AA Division an amazing 32 times over the history of the matches; they take this stuff pretty seriously at this club. Twice they have won the title for seven consecutive years. And they win while relying on players of all ages, teenagers as well as 70-somethings. After all, the golf ball does not know your age. The high handicap index of the preliminary roster this year for their elite team was 1.8; the average was scratch.
Other cities or regions have similar competitions, but nothing matches the GAP team matches for scale or passion. The Association’s magazine described them this year as “revered,” and that’s pretty accurate. That description goes a long way toward understanding the unique golf culture that is Philadelphia.