The overall consensus of the field going into the newly established World Hickory Match Play Championship was that the final would be a contest between U.S. Hickory Open Champ Jeremy Moe and World Hickory Open Champ Paolo Quirici. However, match play can be a devilish trickster that empties the tank of the speediest racer well ahead of the checkered flag. That would not be the case as Moe and Quirici outlasted their foes during the qualifying rounds to reach the 18-hole final on a hot sunny day at the historic Philadelphia Cricket Club’s St Martins course.
After announcing the dates of the inaugural tournament at the World Hickory Open last October, invitations went out to the best of the best in the modern hickory era. Champions of the most prestigious events on the annual calendar were invited to compete in one of the truest forms of golf begun ages ago – match play – mano y mano; golf as it was most commonly played in the early days of Musselburgh, Prestwick, and St Andrews; hole by hole until there were no more to be won. In the tradition of championships forgotten over time, stymies and all, comes the World Hickory Match Play Championship.
The tournament committee of Mike Policano, Brian Schuman (Metropolitan Hickory Association), and Rick Woeckner (Virginia Hickory Golf Association), did a fabulous job organizing the format that was a grueling test from which emerged probably the two best hickory players on the planet. The St Martins course proved to be a worthy venue and there are not enough kudos to go around to the staff and members who openly embraced the tournament and felt it was an important addition to their tradition and history. This is a place that knows the value of heritage. To top it off, special guest Lionel Freedman, founder of the World Hickory Open, was on hand as the honorary starter and championship referee. His ceremonial tee shot split the fairway to get things started.
I had the good fortune to observe the championship match hole for hole and can only say the play was superb. Each matched scores over the first three3 holes and Quirici went one up with a birdie on number four. Moe made a nice up and down on 5 to tie the hole but faltered a bit on number 6 making bogey to fall back by two. A poor drive by Quirici on 7 led to a bogey and a missed green on 8 into a bunker led to another bogey when his 6-foot tying putt slide by the hole. He took the lead again at number 9 when Moe missed his tying putt that barely lipped out. On the back nine Jeremy pulled even with a birdie on number 11.
The match was tied as they played the 17th where Quirici hit one of the great shots in the tournament. His approach over a bunker landed to within 3 feet. Moe, just off the putting surface, came within a whisker of holing his shot but headed for the home hole dormie. Quirici’s approach on 18 was pulled left and found another greenside bunker. He was unable to get it up and down setting up a sudden death playoff.
Routine pars were made on the first hole. Playing the home hole again, Quirici hit his approach into the same left bunker. Moe placed a well-executed shot to about 20 feet left of the hole. Once again the sand gave Quirici some trouble. He could only watch as Moe calmly rolled in his birdie putt for the championship. A great match by two fine gentlemen who, I am proud to say, call me friend. Too bad someone had to lose, as they say.
As part of the event, there was a Players Division of golfers who were invited as a result of their fine play in hickory events over the past two years. The winner of this group was Bill Ernst who defeated Chris Ream in the final. Ernst now qualifies to play in the Champions Division at next year’s event. Of course, as the winner of the recent Belvedere Hickory Open, his ticket was already punched.
The World Hickory Match Play Championship is a fine addition to the many hickory tournaments held around the world and is a testament to the growing interest in this form of the game. I again commend the tournament committee of Schuman, Policano, and Woeckner for the outstanding work they did in preparing for and operating the event. I think it is safe to say that the future of hickory golf is bright with enthusiastic fellows such as these who demonstrate a fondness for tradition and history.