by Fred Seely
The Jacksonville Area Golf Association Amateur Championship is coming up but don’t call it the men’s “city championship.” It isn’t, and hasn’t been for over 50 years. But, at least the men have one — the women don’t have anything approaching it.
The “city championship” once was a revered term in America’s communities but few claim one today. Golf courses today are a suburban staple as “city” courses in most places are either gone, going or in bad shape.
Plus, golf is a game of social status, too, and the good golfers have moved to suburban communities and want to play the better courses. But that’s a problem: the “better” courses don’t want a bunch of outsiders taking up weekend tee times.
But there are courses here, so why isn’t this really a “city” championship?
First, the men:
The fact that it isn’t a Jacksonville championship is because of the nature of the sanctioning body: JAGA doesn’t just represent clubs in the city limits of Jacksonville; it’s an association of about 50 clubs including some as far away as Lake City and Gainesville, not to mention several in South Georgia.
When this year’s championship is played July 19-21, it’s referred to by many as the “city championship.” Indeed, tournament director (and JAGA president) Bart O’Leary sends out a letter to exempt players with that phrase.
“I know it isn’t, but so many people call it the ‘city championship’ that it’s easier to identify it that way,” he said. “We have lots of guys from outlying cities, but they don’t complain.”
Last year’s championship came down to a playoff between two St. Johns County residents and Scott Smith bested Ken Moody. The year before, Orange park resident Robert Goettlicher won.
Does your city have a championship, all its own?
Once, Jacksonville did. But that was when there were only a few courses here.
“We didn’t have a real championship at the time,” said Jacksonville businessman Henry Tuten. “The closest we had was at Brentwood and it was called ‘The Finkelstein.’ None of the good players were in it, but it was the unofficial city championship.” (Finkelstein was a big pawn shop on Bay Street, and its owner was a golf nut.)
At the time, JAGA existed mainly to coordinate schedules.
“I was the JAGA rep from San Jose and I thought something should be done,” said Tuten, “so I went to Ed Teague, who was the president, and suggested we get a real championship going that would be played at prestigious clubs.”
Teague agreed and appointed a committee: Tuten, Dr. Charles Hillyer, Lou Gifford and Bill Scarborough. They reported at the next meeting, recommending that JAGA start a championship.
“Remember, back then the association was the ‘Jacksonville Amateur Golf Association’ and it was intended for Jacksonville clubs,” said Tuten. “We didn’t have anyone from Lake City or Gainesville.”
Tuten ran the tournament for 20 years and it was a big deal, attracting considerable newspaper publicity and bringing most of the top players together.
Today, the word “Amateur” has been replaced with “Area” and, indeed, there are clubs in Lake City and Gainesville which can participate.
The event also has changed, mainly due to the growth of the game and JAGA’s lesser role today than 30 years ago. It no longer is considered the best amateur event here (the amateur field for the Gate Open, played in August, is far superior) although recent changes — a qualifying round, for instance — have increased the field and made the tournament more manageable to the volunteers who run it.
It’s now played over good courses, too: this year it’s at Deerwood and Deercreek, and last year it was at Oak Bridge and Hidden Hills.
The field is fairly strong, with probably half of the city’s top players competing. (The Gate, in comparison, gets almost all.)
And, based on a survey of cities around the country, the local “championship” is reasonably typical and probably one of the better. many big cities have abandoned any effort at a championship. Most are like JAGA, reaching out into the area. Smaller communities still cling to a local championship; in many, it’s the biggest event of the year.
What about a women’s championship?
As far as anyone can remember, Jacksonville only has had one truly open-to-all tournament and it was a dismal failure — the Jacksonville Area GA tried a women’s division in the early 1990s and drew only five players, so it was abandoned.
The Jacksonville Women’s GA has conducted an annual championship for its members since 1927 but that doesn’t count as an overall championship because the association isn’t open to the public. These days, most of the top players are JWGA members (it wasn’t always that way) so today’s JWGA Championship can reasonably lay claim to producing the area “champion.”
It’s not the best tournament, though: this month’s First Coast Ladies at Ponce De Leon has become the unofficial championship for the area although it’s open to anyone.