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PGN Feature: After Delay, Local Amateurs Free to Get Competitive Fix

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With rakes poking out of bags, players tee off in Isaly's Junior Tour event Tuesday at Shannopin Country Club. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

BEN AVON HEIGHTS, Pa. — If a time-traveler had been dropped out of the ether and onto the first tee at Shannopin Country Club on Tuesday, she probably wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between this year’s Isaly’s Junior Tour event and any other from the recent past.

Driver heads are still oversized, cap bills are still flat and the SCC tee boxes are still adorned with stately chunks of granite with hole yardages chiseled into them.

Actually, come to think of it, there is one quirk that might catch this time-traveler’s eye. For 2020, all Isaly’s players are carrying a 15th ‘club’ in their bags: A rake.

In an attempt to reduce unnecessary touching of shared objects, the Tri-State PGA has given each junior player a plastic rake to use whenever they play out of a bunker. It makes for a head-tilting scene, with the young golfers looking as much greenskeepers as green-hunters.

But although the tradition of the community rake is a temporary casualty of COVID-19, much of the region’s amateur competitions are thankfully not.

In fact, in terms of the Junior Tour, there’s not a spot available in any of the tournaments through the end of the season. According to Tri-State PGA player development coordinator Bob Gillespie, it’s the first junior-tour sellout since 2009.

“It’s been a fantastic turnout,” Gillespie said. “It’s incredible with all that’s going on in the world today. We’re seeing a lot of new faces.”

And, four Isaly’s events into the season, those rakes haven’t been too cumbersome to lug around. One player’s mother told me Tuesday her son screws the top off of his particular gardening tool and stashes it in his bag to keep it from poking him.

Isaly’s Junior Tour players surround Shannopin’s ninth green Tuesday morning. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

As for the Western Pennsylvania Golf Association, there are still spots available in both the official competitions and the increasingly-popular Play Day ‘taste tests’ at various courses around the region.

The WPGA had to make a tough call on some of its yearly events — cancelling the Boys and Girls championships, plus the Father & Son and Parent & Child tournaments — while postponing several to later in the summer, like the 117th WPGA Open, the 100th Junior Championship and the 79th Four-Ball Championship.

The 120th WPGA Amateur, meanwhile, continues as scheduled July 6-7 at Allegheny Country Club, with the qualifying rounds taking place this week. Like the Open, though, the Amateur has reduced its field size to 54 and shortened the tournament to 36 holes.

Considering these measures to limit interpersonal exposure, WPGA director of competition Mac Wolfe said registration for the organization’s two longest-tenured tourneys is “down a little.” This week, 115 golfers with handicaps at 6.4 or lower are competing for the 18 open spots in the Amateur.

Wolfe said he accepts that the uncertainty of the spring caused many area golfers to change their competition plans. From job layoffs and furloughs to on-the-fly schedule adjustments, 2020 just wasn’t going to be a year for record WPGA turnout in the big events.

Yet, most of the scheduled competitions will be played, barring any rollbacks from Harrisburg due to further COVID-19 resurgences. If a ‘second wave’ is a worry, the final event on the calendar, the Senior Series, will conclude Sept. 21. (For the full revamped schedule, click here.)

On the other hand, registration for the standalone Play Days is up over 2019 levels, with 14 courses open for reduced-rate play on selected dates through the middle of October.

“People were pent up for a month and a half,” Wolfe said. “Interest is through the roof.”

Outside of the informal Play Days, WPGA competitors will have to make some adjustments to their usual processes.

For one, the pre-round process on site will be highly regimented. Players aren’t to arrive at the course until 45 minutes before their scheduled tee times and can only use the practice facilities to warm up in a 25-minute window.

Once competition starts, players will track their scores electronically via a smartphone app, as all official paper scorecards and tee sheets will be scrapped for the summer. Wolfe said the WPGA was looking at moving to this all-digital scorekeeping in the near future, but the circumstances accelerated the transition.

“This was the way of the future anyway,” Wolfe said. “We hadn’t planned on doing it so quickly, but we’ve used (the technology) in exhibitions.”

Carl Kaufmann won 10 City Amateur titles from 1923-47. (BOB O’CONNOR GC)

The feel will be much more old-school in Schenley Park this weekend, but that’s (ahem) par for the course at the quaint, par-67 Bob O’Connor layout. The only course within the Pittsburgh city limits will host the annual City Amateur tournament Saturday morning.

Head pro Eric Kulinna is trying to inject some energy into the 18-hole event, which used to carry quite a bit of prestige in its early years, when it was a qualifier for the United States Golf Association’s Public Links Championship. In fact, five City Amateur winners have gone on to claim USGA titles, including defending City Am champ Sean Knapp, who won the U.S. Senior Amateur in 2017.

In his first year of director of golf at the Bob O’Connor, Kulinna has dug into the club archives for photos of past City Amateur champs, displaying them on Instagram to build a bit of hype.

“This tournament,” Kulinna explained, “hasn’t been publicized that much in modern times.”

Legacy aside, one thing the City Am definitely has going for it is the price. It’s just $40 to enter the championship flight, which tees off starting at 7:30 a.m. Saturday. Any of the other five flights — Senior Men’s, Super Senior Men’s, Open Women’s, Junior Boys’ and Junior Girls’ — are $25 each to enter. The deadline to register is Thursday at 5 p.m.

Regardless of whether you stick to the Bob or venture out of the city, there are plenty of options for local amateurs to get their tournament-play fix. Just don’t be surprised if you have to ditch the scorecard … or are asked to carry your own rake.

Whatever it takes to get back to the competitive grind.

As Gillespie reminded: “We’re all in this together.”

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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