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First on the Tee

First On The Tee: No Doubt About It, The Price of Competition Is Steep

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The only reason I was able to play South Hills Country Club. MATT GAJTKA/PGN

PITTSBURGH — I joke you not, one of my first thoughts after hitting out-of-bounds for the second time in three holes last Monday at South Hills Country Club was, ‘At least I don’t have to pay another $30 cart fee tomorrow.’

Not exactly the reaction you might expect, or what that I would’ve expected from myself, but truth emerges in moments of stress.

I probably shouldn’t have tried to play in a ‘serious’ tournament two days after bringing our new baby home. On the other hand, I was banking on some new-dad adrenaline to carry me through, as opposed to the general malaise that sets in after multiple weeks of interrupted sleep. (I speak from experience.)

Turns out that adrenaline rush was only good for seven holes, as I went from comfortably inside the cut line at the Pittsburgh Open to simply playing out the string by No. 11. What I’d hoped would be a 36-hole bout with one of the area’s classic venues was reduced to 18.

But as I said, there was one benefit to not qualifying for the second day of competition in my first Tri-State PGA event. I saved the mandatory cart fee, in addition to the gas money to get to and from South Hills CC.

That sounds pretty cheap now that I read it back to myself, but my last name isn’t Rockefeller, or Rooney for that matter. Also, are you aware I work in sports media?

I feel two ways about the price it takes to play this game.

For one, I understand there are people who make a living in golf, and who would like to continue to make a living in it. If everything is dirt cheap, then these people are going to have a hard time making any money — and last I checked we live in a capitalist society. Furthermore, it costs money to keep up courses, probably more than most of us think.

For another, the best way to grow the sport and make it more accessible is to lower the barriers for entry. That’s a cliché at this point, especially in sports that are dependent on elaborate equipment, such as hockey or lacrosse. The barriers for entry are definitely on the high side in golf, even if you play strictly municipal courses.

On top of that, if you want to play in a few competitive tournaments, like I’ve been starting to over the past couple of summers, the wall grows higher. And Mexico’s not paying for it.

For instance, I’ve competed in three local events over the past 12 months, two conducted by the Western Pennsylvania Golf Association and then last week’s Tri-State PGA tourney. Not counting that pesky cart fee, which you had to pay regardless of whether you used it or not, the average cost per event has been north of $150.

Again, I understand that these organizations need the funds to operate and promote the sport properly in the Pittsburgh area. In addition to the enjoyment and thrill I get from putting my game to the test against some of the region’s best, I consider my payments to the WPGA and Tri-State PGA as donations to their overarching causes.

I believe in supporting local golf, so it’s not like I’m being held up.

That doesn’t take away the fact that it’s a lot of money to pay for a single day at the course, at least for the average Joe or Jane. As pleasant as my experiences have been at the three clubs I’ve competed at over the past year — Williams CC in Weirton, W.Va., Hill Crest CC in Lower Burrell, and South Hills — they’re not Pebble Beach, either.

But, hey, the market value of something is whatever people will pay, and I paid it. Rather gladly, in fact, even though it makes a dent in the monthly budget for a self-employed dad with two young kids.

I do wonder, though, how much is too much to pay to play a golf tournament? No one has the right to play in a WPGA or Tri-State PGA event, but shouldn’t we want a more diverse field, whether we’re talking economic status or ethnicity?

Along those lines, I couldn’t help but notice something else about these tournament fields I’ve competed in. At least among the competitors I encountered or saw, they all looked an awful lot like me.

I’m not talking about the long hair, either.

Can’t complain about the generous range setup at South Hills. Should’ve just stayed there! (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

DOWN THE FAIRWAY

• We’ll start our weekly news and views rundown as we always do, on the local scene.

It’s a special week in Johnstown, where the renowned Sunnehanna Amateur takes place for the 67th time. As part of the so-called Road to the U.S. Amateur, the winner and runner-up at Sunnehanna Country Club will receive invitations to the USGA’s most prestigious amateur championship.

This tournament traditionally attracts some of the best collegiate golfers in the country, and the list of past winners includes PGA Tour members past and present like Collin Morikawa, Rickie Fowler, Webb Simpson, Lucas Glover, Scott Verplank and Ben Crenshaw.

Local players in this year’s event include Notre Dame standout Palmer Jackson, past U.S. Senior Amateur winner Sean Knapp and defending West Penn Amateur champ Connor Schmidt, whom I profiled this month.

The rare four-round amateur stroke play event runs from Tuesday to Friday. No fans are permitted on the premises.

• With one WPGA Open qualifier taken care of last week at Birdsfoot, another group of hopefuls will convene Tuesday at Diamond Run Golf Club in Sewickley to round out the field.

By the way, still no word on when the WPGA Amateur might be made up at Allegheny Country Club. Originally scheduled to be competed July 6-7, increased restrictions on gathering sizes due to rising COVID-19 cases in the county put the 120th edition of the event on hold.

• With the Pittsburgh Open in the rear-view mirror, the Tri-State PGA tour heads northwest to Hermitage for the Tam O’Shanter Open. A mixture of pros and amateurs will play 18 holes today for honors and prizes.

• And finally, the Isaly’s Junior Tour makes its way back east for today’s event at Latrobe Country Club. The tourney at Arnie’s place is the lone event on the schedule this week, after three tour stops last week.

• The PGA Tour’s two-week residence in greater Columbus, Ohio, is complete, with 25-year-old Spaniard Jon Rahm rising to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time by running away with the Memorial Tournament.

Muirfield Village had a LOT more bite this week than last, when it was intentionally set up to be more receptive for the one-off Workday Charity Open. Collin Morikawa won that one in a playoff with Justin Thomas after both shot 19 under for the week.

Rahm, meanwhile, shot 9 under and still won by three, making it four straight years with a victory on Tour for the former Arizona Stater. He ranked fourth in the field in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee and first in SG: Tee-to-Green, so I’d say the firm, fast course determined a worthy winner.

It appeared to be a five-stroke win for Rahm until rules officials (rightly) dinged him for unintentionally moving his ball on No. 16. That penalty did nothing to remove the luster of this magnificent chip-in, which essentially won the tournament.

After a true test for an elite field in central Ohio, the Tour moves on to Minneapolis for the 3M Open this week.

• From the department of mea culpa: I made a snide remark on Twitter about Memorial host and Columbus’ native son Jack Nicklaus earlier in the week.

Now, I stand by the fact that Nicklaus, as quoted, sounds like one of those people who aren’t taking the scourge of COVID-19 seriously.

But as revealed by Nicklaus himself on Sunday’s CBS broadcast, both he and his wife Barbara contracted the virus in March at their home in Florida, and the couple recently tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies. So, theoretically, there’s no way Jack could give the winner the virus, as the 18-time major winner said himself on the air.

If he would’ve just revealed that before the tournament, that quote would’ve come off a lot differently. Heck, it would’ve been funny. Still, I’ll apologize anyway if my tweet was harsh in hindsight.

For the record, Jack and Jon fist-bumped on the 18th green Sunday.

• Hope you’ve enjoyed our five Course Reviews so far! More where that came from shortly, in addition to another interesting Game Improvement feature and a PGN Feature look at a local collegiate program that gets overlooked.

By the way, that special PGN $25 offer at Murrysville Golf Club lasts through the end of the month only, so take advantage of it while you can.

Until next time, stay out of the bunker.

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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