‘SuperCova’ too much for McNabb Cup field
Sept. 12, 2017 – Whitehall, Mich.
Nor stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass,
Nor airless dungeon, nor strong links of iron,
Can be retentive to the strength of spirit.
Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, I, 1599
In a contemplative frame of mind, for his golf had many holes ago given way to philosophy, former McNabb Cup Captain Gary Trapani turned to his playing partner with these words: “You know, the human spirit is a delicate thing.”
We can only surmise what similar thoughts might have preoccupied the heated brains of the other 17 competitors as they strove for the coveted McNabb Cup, jewel of the Michigan Hickory Tour. Now the stuff of legend, the great Cup has become, in its delicate flowering form, the symbol of what is good and right and altogether wholesome in the fiery crucible of hickory golf and its quest for glory.
Is not one crowded hour of glorious life worth an age without a name? asks the sage.
Nineteen stout and true men turned out to test mettle and soul on the shady fairways of the Old Channel Trail, over a 1926 nine-hole layout married to a second nine completed in 1994. Mighty Lake Michigan, its blue surface sparkling diamond-like in the late-summer sun, lay just beyond the old and now un-used first fairway of the old course.
The 2017 Cup had been a test from the beginning, beset by twists of an unkind fate. The unkindest cut of all was the loss of Wally Bills from the field. Wally was one of four original Cuppers who had made it to every event. His, however, was a higher calling in that he was traveling with his wife who has written a popular gardening book, and was called to lecture on our playing date.
As well, our customary playing field at White Lake GC was taken from us just three weeks from our playing date, supplanted by a fundraiser football outing. The August and Ancient Committee of the Cup (old men who are upset by any discordant notes in their well-regulated lives) were sorely annoyed with the request to either move The Cup to another day or push it well back into the afternoon, thus eliminating hours from the necessary post-Cup rituals of titles bestowed, feasting, and drinking.
The Committee was not long in its decision. We removed our tournament to the Old Channel Trail, whose pro and staff were welcoming and friendly. Old Channel, however, is on the direct opposite side of White Lake from the McNabb Cottage which sits high on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. The White Lake course is but five minutes away. The Old Channel course is about 25 minutes away, the route dogged this year by no fewer than two detours, one for a washout that has been there for five years, and the second for a road works in the only road north of the little town of Montague that leads to the course.
Bah. These were of minor concerns to the contestants who bade farewell to kith and ken, cleaned their clubs, ironed their shirts and plus-fours, and traveled from Ohio and the far reaches of Michigan, north south and east. These are men who have seen stern battle in hickory golf tournaments across this country, and even across the Atlantic. You know them. You have read of them – Sunny Bieszka, the Marshall Kid, Riker the “Doc,” the Wee Mon Staudacher, Handsome Joe, the Phantom Flyer, the Commissioner, Fast Eddie, Billy, Pinch, TC, Touch – and new to the field, the Super Cova, and Frankie the Stang.
On Thursday evening, several of the contestants arrived, mostly from the Wyandotte, Mich. area, and all of them guests in the McNabb Cottage for 2017. In thanks, they had an artist friend, Gary Knox, create a small statue based on the only known photo of Isabelle McNabb, upon whose 1927 trophy our event is based. Knox, a former art teacher at Wyandotte’s Roosevelt High School, occasionally makes such statues for golf trophies and the like. He outdid himself and I can speak for the August and Ancient Committee, that it will hold a pride of place in the McNabb Cottage.
Beautiful the dawn promised and in its maturity we basked in warmth and sun. Twenty men gathered for a lovely round of golf at the Muskegon Country Club, originally laid out by Thomas Bendalow in 1908, but redone by Donald Ross in 1926. There are those who believe it be one of the best courses in Michigan, high praise when one considers Grosse Ile (also Ross) and Crystal Downs (Alistair Mackenzie).
Superlative and hyperbole are useless here, the course has no need for it. The player comes to it bravely and with relish for its straightforward challenges and typical testy Ross greens. On this day, with a late tee time of 2:30 p.m., we played in groups of three, a scramble under Stableford scoring rules. The team of John Cova, Frank Abrahams, and Lloyd Slinglend turned in a card Bobby Jones might have done, with a score of 40, to best all others, the closest a 39 by runners-up Howard Vogel, Scott Staudacher, and Joe Bodnar. Our grateful thanks go to Muskegon’s director of golf and marketing Stephanie Pawlowski and her staff and to the club’s members for hosting our visit.
We needed to play quickly to meet our 7:30 p.m. reservation at Hobo’s Tavern, a noted public inn with a reputation for good beer and excellent grub, where some 16 of us gathered round a large board laid to rest over a billiard table. Toasts, many toasts later, and following a great meal of fried lake perch, various steaks, and chicken pastas, we followed a darkened road to the McNabb Cottage for nightcaps of selected single malts and the hazy embellishments of men who, away from wives and responsibility, laugh loudly at stories old and new the while glancing and groaning at the exploits of the millionaire gladiators of professional football on the telly.
Davis, the host, opted to bunk at a neighbor’s cottage, ostensibly to provide sleeping quarters for an additional guest; but, I think, he just wanted to get the hell out of there to get to bed at a decent hour. Smart chap.
Saturday – The Cup
Tee times were not until 11:30 a.m., allowing for a leisurely breakfast at The Dive in Whitehall. It was a nautical theme, not that of a disreputable den of grease and broken spirits. Coffee, eggs, sausage, etc., then off to Old Channel Trail.
Upon arrival, Davis settled in with pairings sheets and with the Cup itself on premises, for rumor had it that the course owner, Meriam Bailey Leeke, a top amateur player from Illinois and a former Curtis Cup player, would present the trophy to the deserving winner.
The players arrived accompanied by scores of hangers-on, gaggling retinues the like normally associated with Walter Hagen, Rickie Fowler, or Ron Lyons. But this was, after all, The McNabb Cup, and the golf media is ever hungry for stories. Fortunately, the Old Channel staff had erected a media tent wherein keyboards were clicking furiously, the early hour and sobriety contributing greatly to productivity for nervous sports editors across the planet.
As usual, Handsome Joe and Tim the Phantom Flyer were prime interview targets, although wiser and more experienced reporters were seeking new angles with the dark horse entries of John “Super” Cova and Frank,”The Stang” Abrahams. Cova, with his steely eyes and quiet strength, and Abrahams, a flamboyant bon vivant who drives a pristine 1965 Mustang with a husky 302 engine, were subjects for much pre-contest editorializing among media cognoscenti.
Minutes before tee time, outgoing Captain Gary Trapani welcomed the 2017-18 Captain David Ramos to his great office with moving words of encouragement, something about the struggle of post-1990 English majors, and an admonishment to keep a heedful ear for any hint of a whisper that yardage devices should be allowed at The Cup.
Ramos, accepting the Medal of Office, took his place on the first tee to drive in The 2017 Cup. After a prodigious swipe at the ball, which flew off in all directions, the 2018 contest was on.
First out were Trapani, Davis, and Ramos. The first two quickly faded, having by the fourth hole exhausted their store of hope and recovery shots. Ramos backed a tough first nine with a fine second to card a respectable, if not glowing, 87. It would not hold up.
Cup hopefuls, Pinch and Sunny, always keen players with an eye on the fame that Cup victory invariably brings, also faded quickly. Their high hopes and staunch optimism, however, are the stuff for which McNabb entrants are justly famed. Handsome Joe, Pishlo and the dapper 110YDS (Lloyd Slinglend)as well fell to early and continual errors of stroke that only compounded themselves on the back nine, the tough and narrow Valley side of Old Channel Trail with its treacherous, woody ravines and fairways so narrow they make political views seem expansive.
Magical Maynard, Commissioner Hill, and Fast Eddie gave some indication of a rally, but it was a rally choked instead by failures to communicate with approaching cleek, or by putters that seemed to bear grudges of some long standing.
It was left to the Wee Mon to put some heat on the machine-like Cova whose relentless barrage of birdie and par seemed unshakeable. The Wee Mon is a player of radar-like accuracy with approaching iron, betrayed only occasionally by a nervous putter. “Every time I get close, he finds another way to score,” Staudacher confessed to a wide-eyed Handsome Joe who long since had become a mere witness to history.
Billy and The Stang were the two remaining players with a chance. With the determination of harried Pekingese, the two went all out – challenging the dangerous ravines and woods of the back nine with mid iron, driver and niblick… all to naught.
The brilliant Super Cova came home with an untouchable low score of 77 for a net 66 and the title of McNabb Cup Champion for 2017. Billy came up second with an 85 for a net 70. The Stang was third with an 86, and also for a net 70. A scorecard playoff determined their official finish.
The Wee Mon, who again came so close to The Cup, would have to be content with second place in the low score category, shooting an 84, a full seven shots behind Cova’s magificent 77. Billy’s 85 was third.
Assembled at the patio near the pro shop, spent combatants gathered for media interviews and the final accounting. While Johnny Miller and Dan Hicks helped themselves to hot dogs in the pro shop, Davis, with help from Trapani and Ramos, computed and validated the cards. Tape was found to repair those rent in anguish. Handshakes and pats on the back were applied to the smiling Cova, nonplussed by the cameras in his face and the repeated inane questions about this shot or that.
At this point, our assembled were treated to the rare privilege of having a truly accomplished golfer present the McNabb Cup to the victor. Meriam Bailey Leeke, owner of Old Channel Trail, opened by her grandfather in 1927, has a long list of golf credentials to her name. A top Illinois amateur, she won the Women’s National Collegiate, the Women’s Wester Amateur, was a member of the U.S. Curtis Cup team, made the cut three straight times in the U.S. Women’s Open, a member of the USGA public golf course committee, a member of the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame and the Northwestern University Athletic Hall of Fame.
This lovely lady took our presentation to another level by joining us to present our McNabb Cup to Mr. Cova who accepted in the style becoming a McNabb Champion. After all, the trophy was won by a lady, Miss Isabell McNabb, in 1922, and it is in her honor, in the great traditions of golf, in respect of the game, and in respect of our fellow players, that we hold this annual competition. All these things Mrs. Leeke embodies, from her career to her work as a board member and former treasurer for the National Golf Course Owners Association.
All McNabb Cup players extend their warmest thanks to Mrs. Leeke, to her head PGA pro Jim Kueney and their golf course staff for helping us enjoy a truly fine outing.
“Yes,” said Capt. Trapani, “The human spirit is a delicate thing. One moment, our mashie niblicks are dancing around the flag, and all is right with god and man. The next, when niblicks scuff the ground, mid irons are despicable criminals, and balls run for the woods like scared rabbits, all seems black and hopeless.”
After making his par on the final hole – “God, I love this game.”
Not much to tell. Not much that can be remembered, or told without fear of lawsuit. As is our custom, all players repair to the McNabb Cottage on Lake Michigan for the great Feast of the Cup. Meals and cakes prepared by players or their lovely wives were supplied in abundance. Pish secured sweet corn from a roadside stand and prepared a recipe (that he refused to divulge) for a delicious spicy cob. All brought bottles of this or that, from fine wines to rare single malts, and an even rarer distillation from Albania, Konjack, that is in danger of becoming a tradition. It has been described variously as a lubricant, a disinfectant, and the fluid used in garden tiki lanterns.
We drank, we ate, and drank more. Sometime during the festivities, Capt. Ramos announced his choice for Vice Captain – Tim Stroshine. Choked with emotion, the Phantom Flyer came in for a landing at Capt. Ramos’ considerable feet to offer due homage and accept the awful mantle of captain-in-waiting for the year. Medals were bestowed on the seconds and thirds and the champion, Mr. Cova, again applauded for his thorough dusting of the rest of the field.
Konjack was found and uncorked as it serves as a deterrent to winning any rounds of the now familiar corn hole tournament that follows the McNabb Cup. The corn hole boards were presented to the McNabb Cottage in 2016 as a gift from then-Capt. Gary Trapani.
Of special note, Howard Vogel (TC, for Traverse City) who is something of a woodworker, had prepared a special plaque for his friend of many years, Michigan Hickory Tour Commissioner Roger Hill. “The Out-Lyre,” as he called it, had several symbols denoting friendship, the game of golf and life, its hazards and its triumphs. Clearly touched and fighting back tears (an eye irritation, we later learned), Commissioner Hill accepted the plaque and the laudation of the happy assembled. Taking nothing away from the moment, the assembled would have pretty much applauded anything by this time in the evening.
And so it went. The 2017 McNabb Cup survived a late change of venue, annoying detours and the absence of original Cup player, Wally Bills, to record another one for the ages.
The Cup is truly a celebration of the spirit, of the good things about golf and friendship that move through our lives like the feeling of a well-struck mashie. If there is a recognition among the players, if there is something in what they say about their enjoyment of the McNabb Cup, it is because they imbue The Cup with an extraordinary measure of generosity, humility, respect and, yes, an ability to not take it all too seriously, that makes this event special.
P.S. There was no parting round of golf on the Sunday morning as, for several celebrants of the prior evening, strong coffee failed to ignite flickering consciousness until later in the day.
It must also be noted that a good Friend of The Cup, Jimmy Schmidt, neighbor to the McNabb Cottage and VIP of the White Lake Golf club, was sorely annoyed that the WLGC was the source of some grief to our contest. He has promised he will take measures that we might be restored to WLGC for 2018. “I like you guys,” he said. And so, we will see.
(Full scores for the field below the photos.)
Full results are posted here. All scores are net scores.
John Cova 66
Bill Ellington 70 (scorecard playoff)
Frank Abrahams 70
David Ramos 71
Scott Staudacher 72
Bill Tucholski 73
Roger Hill 74
Larry Pinchback 75
Mike Pishlo 76
Todd Riker 77
Gary Trapani 78
Lloyd Slinglend 78
Jack Maynard 80
Tim Stroshine 83
Howard Vogel 83
Joe Bodnar 87
Bob Bieszka 88
Ed Ronco 90
Jim Davis 90
Low Gross Score
John Cova 77
Scott Staudacher 84
Bill Ellington 85