There’s no green jacket at the end of local tourneys, but the competition to get to the final pin is filled with as much nail-biting excitement as the masters.
Given the state of world affairs, club championships must seem pretty insignificant to those who don’t play golf. Why would forty or fifty grown men spend their time and energy trying so hard to qualify for a tournament in which the grand prize is usually nothing more than a plaque or a trophy and having one’s name enshrined in the pro shop? Why would individuals who have achieved so much in their careers, some of whom have seen fortunes won and lost in a single breath, give such a small-scale competition even a second thought? And why, in the unlikely event that they should win, do they secretly feel, if only for a moment, that they are among the masters of the universe?
“When it gets down to it, we’re all still kids just wanting to compete and win,” says Stuart Waack, head golf professional at Silvermine Golf Club in Norwalk.
Compete they do, at country clubs and golf courses throughout the area, for the right to be called club champion. Most winners are humble. They say victory was no big deal, that they got lucky, that they went home and hardly thought about it again. Yet if asked the right question, they bring forth vivid memories of shots made or missed, and, of course, the moment victory was at hand. “For two weekends, it was just fun,” says Frank Morgan, who won the Silvermine club championship in 2002. “I wish it would repeat itself.”
Why do club championships matter? Perhaps it is because they are family affairs. Among those who play at a given club, they are an opportunity to sort out, if only for a weekend, who is best. For adults, there is a certain decorum to it all. But in the end it’s not much different from the athletic contests you had as children with your brothers or buddies, which no crowds witnessed but that remain indelible in memory.
We give you four representative champions from some local clubs. They may look like average guys, but for at least a moment, in one place, they were kings.
Silvermine Golf Club
Peter Drippé, reigning champion at Silvermine Golf Club, shakes his head and chuckles when he recounts the day that his son Cooper, a budding golfer in his own right, caught him off guard with what seemed like an easy question: “What do you like about golf, Dad?”
Typically, Peter would have offered the nine-year-old a G-rated reply. In a momentary lapse, however, the father gave an answer that deserved something closer to an R rating: “I said, ‘Well, you can smoke cigars, you can drink beer, you can gamble with your friends, and you can be competitive and play a sport.’
“After I said it, I realized it was somewhat inappropriate. But we had a good laugh about it later.”
A little vice can be nice, but when chatting with the long-legged hedge-fund manager, one gets the sense that what he finds most satisfying about golf is the competition. Indeed, that’s one reason Peter enjoys the somewhat easy, short Silvermine course, where an eight-handicap golfer like himself can hang tough with better players. “The course makes it easier for everybody to be competitive,” he says. “For me and a lot of guys, it makes the club championship really fun.”
Peter, who is forty-three, should know. In taking the title for the first time last year, three of his four victories were by razor-thin margins. Two of his wins came over former club champions. But between the short course and the match-play format, in which winning depends on the number of holes won rather than overall strokes, Peter was able to shut down his opponents.
“It wasn’t like I did anything spectacular,” he says.
“I hit fairways and greens and two-putted a lot, and that was enough. Two of the guys I played with were clearly better golfers than me. The other two I’m very competitive with; we have similar handicaps.”
Peter, who is originally from Indiana, played tennis growing up. He took up golf after college, after moving to New York City. Wanting to be outdoors and around nature a bit, he simply bought some clubs, took some lessons and began playing on a public course in Brooklyn. “I started off with the highest handicap you could have, and every year got a little bit better,” he says.
The Darien resident enjoys winning. But he also likes golf’s social aspects, especially as a family activity. Silvermine has a “Pro Shop Nine,” in which Peter and his wife, Tracy, and twins, Cooper and Paige, can hack around as well. “It’s really accessible for us as a family,” Peter says.
What’s more, it has paid dividends. Son Cooper was Silvermine’s eleven-and-under champion last year, and the father-and-son team won the parent-child, nine-and-under, crown.
Country Club of New Canaan
The part that I love about golf is that one shot,” says eighteen-year-old Tyler Zara. “You could be shooting ninety and then you stick one about two inches from the pin. It’s that feeling when you hit that shot, just the pureness of it. That’s what keeps you coming back.”
Something else that keeps Tyler coming back is club championships. He’s won three of the last four titles at the Country Club of New Canaan. And though he has taken his show on the road, to Williams College in Massachusetts, the former New Canaan High School standout will no doubt return to his old stomping grounds. The club is but five minutes from his parents’ home. More important, he enjoys the course, which is considered a thinking man’s track, and the camaraderie and competition of the other members, most of whom are older than Tyler and well into their careers in the working world. “There are some good golfers at the club,” Tyler says. “I had some really great matches this year.”
Tyler has been playing golf almost as far back as he can remember. When he was a youngster, he would join his father, Tom, on the driving range or playing at the Yale University course. They became members at the New Canaan club when Tyler was about ten, and the boy took it up a notch. “I became kind of a club rat,” he says. “I got a lot of teaching and a lot of playing in. That’s when my game got a lot better.”
Steven Dougan, first assistant golf professional at the Country Club of New Canaan, says that Tyler tends to underestimate his skills, and that if he wanted to play at a higher level and compete against better opponents, he surely could. “He can play against anyone,” Dougan says.
“He can go against the pros here.”
Memorable shots? Tyler’s had a few. A couple of years ago, he had a hole in one, which was even better because his father was there to see it. (He was equally happy, he says, to be on hand when Tom hit one of his own.) In high school, meanwhile, Tyler remembers sinking a shot with a pitching wedge from 135 yards for an eagle. “And in the club championship,” he recalls, “I dunked a seven-iron in from 160 yards for an eagle.”
Tyler is on the hockey team at Williams, where he plays defense, and expects to join the golf team this spring. He intends to major in economics, perhaps with a second major in history or political science. He has taken golf about as far as he wants to go with it.
“I used to play some of the junior tournaments and try to win U.S. juniors and all that stuff,” he says. “For me it’s becoming more and more just a leisure sport and social. But I’ll always play in the club championships and the local competitions.”
Wee Burn Country Club
At Wee Burn Country Club, the name Jay Rice is all but synonymous with the title club champion. Jay, who lives in Darien, won the tournament twice in a row during the nineties as well as winning the past four. At age forty-five he has to play his best golf to beat certain up-and-comers. But time and again he’s done just that.
“There’s only a handful of players at the club who have the potential to beat Jay Rice,” says head golf professional Sam Wiley.
Jay established himself as one of the top amateurs in Connecticut seven years ago, when he won the state open tournament, which happened to be played at Wee Burn that year, over Ken Green, who had won five times on the PGA tour and was a member of the 1989 U.S. Ryder Cup team. Jay calls that “by far my greatest achievement.”
Some members still talk about Jay’s outstanding play during that tournament. “I had a couple really incredible shots the last four holes,” Jay says. “I made a putt from off the green on fifteen for a birdie. Then on seventeen, I hit my drive sort of into the trees; I just punched underneath the trees, clipped a tree and it rolled up on the green.”
Also etched in memory is the shot that clinched it.
“I had probably a two-and-a-half- to three-foot putt,” he says. “I was sort of oblivious to everything. I was just trying to focus. My caddy, who was a good friend of mine, comes up to me and goes, ‘You make that putt, you win.’ Which was probably the last thing I needed to hear.”
Jay, who describes himself as a self-employed investor, grew up in western Massachusetts. He first got involved with golf at age ten, when he caddied his father. Before long Jay began putting and chipping, playing a bit more and a bit better each year. He played golf and basketball at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
These days Jay regularly competes around the New York metropolitan area. Among other victories, he and Steve Green of Greenwich have won the prestigious member-guest tournament at the Stanwich Club three years in a row.
Competitive experience, Jay says, is often the difference between winning a club championship and losing. “People don’t realize until you play in these tournaments that it’s totally different from going out on Saturday and Sunday and playing with your buddies,” he says. “I don’t know what it is, the added pressure or whatever, but it really helps when it comes to club championships.”
Many players start to struggle when they hit their forties, losing distance off the tee and putting and chipping with less accuracy. Jay, however, has no plans to break out the belly putter any time soon. Last fall his handicap was “plus” for a while. Since then, his index has hovered around .1. “I’m not ready to give in to the young guys yet,” Jay says with a laugh.
Silvermine Golf Club
Frank Morgan was feeling pretty good about himself four years ago when at age seventy he not only qualified for the Silvermine Golf Club championship but won his first match, over the club’s junior champion. The next day, just before teeing off against his second opponent, Frank got a bracing wake-up call from the club’s head pro, Stuart Waack.
“Your work isn’t over,” Waack told him. “You can win this thing.”
Up to that point, Frank was mainly just enjoying himself. Something in the pro’s words, however, got the attention of the former Norwalk Community College athletics director. “I don’t think he was that focused when he got to the course,” remembers Waack. “I said, ‘Hey, listen, pay attention here.’ I think that snapped him up.”
In match play Frank’s thirteen handicap was not a consideration. No matter. The septuagenarian proceeded to win his next three matches and took the club title over men who for the most part were young enough to be his sons. Although it was drizzly the day of the final match, the weather was the last thing on Frank’s mind when Waack declared him the winner on the seventeenth green. “His eyes filled with water,” says the head pro. “And I tell you, mine did, too.”
Today Frank minimizes his accomplishment, though it’s obvious that was a special day. “To 99.9 percent of the world, it doesn’t mean a thing,” he says. “But once you’re in it, you’re in it. And unless you allow yourself to think it’s more important than it is, you’re not going to succeed.”
Frank, who grew up in West Haven, played little golf as a youngster. Hockey was his game. And though he did golf occasionally as he got older, tennis was his main athletic pursuit. Then, about twenty years ago, his knees started to give out and he focused more on golf.
The Norwalk resident plays several times a week, but says his wife, Georgiann, whom he’s been with since high school, is out on the course even more. Their adult sons, Thomas and Jeffrey, are also fine golfers according to Frank.
Over the years Frank has won various lesser championships at Silvermine. He also participated a couple of times in the Westchester Classic Pro-Am. And in his world travels, evaluating schools for accreditation, Frank always makes time for a round or two. He’s teed off in numerous foreign lands, from England to Malaysia. “The first time I played overseas, I played in Finland, outside of Helsinki,” he says. “And do you know what? The minute you get out there, somebody puts the ball down and you have to hit it. It’s no easier in Finland than it is in the United States.”