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First on the Tee

First On The Tee: Welcome to the Real Prime Golf Season … Fall!

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No foliage evident yet on No. 5, but Ponderosa Golf Club served as the start of my fall golf tour. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

FRANKFORT SPRINGS, Pa. — The leaves aren’t turning yet, but make no mistake. We’ve entered a new golf season.

Let me be the first to welcome you to the best time of the year to play this sport, at least in this part of the world.

Nothing against summer — believe me, I’m the last guy to hate on long days and sizzling afternoons — but there are a couple of factors that make fall the prime time for golf in western Pennsylvania and the surrounding regions.

First and foremost of these Fall Factors is basic: Weather.

Even though I think I play better the higher the Fahrenheit rises, I’ll allow that it’s ideal for most people to tee it up in the 60s and 70s as opposed to the 80s and 90s. And especially in this part of the world, those 80s and 90s are typically accompanied by elevated humidity percentages to match.

Not to get too meteorological on you, but you can start to feel the changing of air masses this time of the year. Yeah, it’s going to be unseasonably hot this week, but you’re not going to be soaking through a couple of shirts if you walk nine or 18, or dig into a large bucket of balls.

Case in point: My brother and I welcomed our mom and dad out to Ponderosa Golf Club on Sunday, our first round as a family of four in way too many years. It was brilliantly sunny and warm, but I didn’t notice any sweat building up or fatigue setting in until late on the back nine.

This is an outdoor sport, after all, existing largely at the mercy of atmospheric conditions. Since the fall is typically pleasant and bright around these parts, that’s more than enough to declare autumn as the king of golf seasons.

But wait … there’s more.

For those of us who reside in the Northern Hemisphere, fall also happens to be the time of year when the repetition of the spring and summer yields a more consistent feel for the game.

Now, most of us aren’t pros (or robots), so I’m not saying we’re all playing outstanding golf by the fall, but I’d wager that, on balance, we all hit it a little better in September compared to, say, April or May. I know that I usually feel best about my swing and my short game in the early fall, before the weather gets cool enough to push us inside.

And if you’re a student or you teach for a living, there’s no doubt that it’s easier to spend some serious time on the game in the summer months, before classes restart and you get back to the school-year grind.

It’s for this reason that, when I was a teenager, I was happy the high school golf season is in the fall around here. I couldn’t imagine just rolling out of the dormant winter months and into competition, although I suppose in these days of indoor simulators, TopGolf and the like, it’s theoretically easier to maintain some semblance of form as the snowflakes fly.

Anyway, to this day, I get a little more excited about getting out to the course when the days start getting shorter and the foliage begins to pop. (As long as the leaf piles don’t get too big under the trees, where I occasionally visit with my drives.)

Perhaps part of that thrill is the knowledge that we’re approaching the darker, colder half of the year, and I’d better appreciate these temperate days while I have them. There’s something to be said for the urgency induced by the passage of time.

Oh, and don’t forget three of the most beautiful words in recreation: Fall golf specials.

DOWN THE FAIRWAY

• Despite what it looked like at the start of Monday’s final round, there ended up being some drama at the business end of the Tour Championship, but Dustin Johnson still held onto a three-stroke win over Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele.

There was some doubt coming into the playoffs who would lay claim to the top spot at the end of this interrupted season. I’d say DJ left nothing to chance, winning the first playoff event by 11, then getting edged by Jon Rahm in sudden death last week, setting up the traditional Atlanta finale.

At World No. 1 and now in possession of his first FedEx Cup, Johnson will prepare for the U.S. Open later this month knowing he’s as clear a major favorite as we’ve seen in recent years.

• If you’re curious about how East Lake Golf Club held up, keep in mind this was the second season in which the PGA Tour used the FedEx Cup playoff standings to set up a ‘graduated’ start.

Since Johnson was leading the standings entering the weekend, he started two strokes ahead of second-place Rahm, three ahead of third-place Thomas, and so on. He finished at ’21 under,’ but he started at 10, so in reality he shot 11 under on the historically-tough par-70 layout.

Actually, if you just look at raw score, Schauffele had the best weekend, shooting a ‘real’ 15 under after starting at 3. Other high-risers include Tour rookie Scott Scheffler, who started at 2 under and rose all the way to 14 under and a fifth-place finish. Thomas matched Johnson with an 11-under ‘real’ total.

Yeah, the Tour Championship is still a little confusing when you break it down that way, but I’d prefer this ‘handicap’ system over what we had before, when you needed constant updates on point totals to figure out who might take the biggest prize in golf.

And for those who claim that Johnson didn’t actually win the Tour Championship, a) this was the format he was presented, and b) this is a meaningful way to make the preceding tournaments count. The FedEx Cup is a season-long event, not a one-off like the majors or the Players Championship.

• Speaking of championships, this will be another title-awarding week in the Western Pennsylvania Golf Association, with the 35th annual Mid-Amateur Championship coming to Longue Vue Club in Verona today.

Matching with the theme from this COVID-19 summer, the Mid-Am field was limited to just 42 players, but will still be contested over 36 holes in one day, as is tradition. Nathan Smith is the defending champion.

(Your humble editor will have to set his sights on next year’s competition, as believe it or not my 4.1 handicap wasn’t good enough for selection in a limited-field year. Twelve more months to practice!)

• It’s a bit of a quieter period for the Tri-State PGA, which hosts the Head Pro/Assistant Pro Championship today at storied Allegheny Country Club in Sewickley Heights.

Last week was also a one-event week, which saw Bridgeport, W.Va., native Marco Oliverio sprint to a two-stroke win at the Cranberry Highlands Open on Monday, Aug. 31. The Fairmont State University junior shot 5-under 65 to best a trio of club pros at 3 under, featuring Kevin Shields (Club at Nevillewood), Christopher McKnight (Laurel Valley CC) and Devin Gee (Oakmont CC).

Oliverio was a second-team Mountain East Conference performer last season at Fairmont State, also qualifying for the NCAA Division II championships as an individual.

• Finally, a reminder on this short work week to submit your high school team’s scores and results for our freshly-launched WPIAL Scoreboard! Tweet them to @pghgolfnow or email me directly at matt.gajtka@gmail.com.

And if you’d like to sponsor the scoreboard, which has already gotten hundreds of hits in less than a week, let me know!

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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