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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A River Runs Through It: Potomac Cup Matches Fuel Maryland - Virginia Rivalry

Editor's Note: Cybergolf is covering the Potomac Cup matches wall to wall this weekend, with additional reports here. Golf Observer will also be linking every day to the coverage of the matches and pairing draws.

We'll also be covering the PGA Championship from Medinah this weekend, but you already know the buzz for this week - 1) Can anybody beat Tiger? No; 2) What about Phil playing with him in the same group? That did loads for Nick Faldo; 3) Why will Tiger win? Because Medinah has flat huge greens, favors brute length over strategy and he won there before. See everybody from Augusta next spring...

So, without further ado:




Fox Sports Net broadcaster Steve Czaban has never been a shrinking violet, but in heating up an inter-state rivalry and taking the battle to the golf course, Czabe (as his friends call him) has become even more of a champion to the average sports fan.

“When I was growing up in the DC area, it was all about what side of the river you were on, Maryland or Virginia. There is just an innate, deep-rooted competition and resultant bad blood between folks from “The Commonwealth” [Virginia] and “The State” [Maryland] says the affable but mischievous Czaban. “My goal was to provide the weekend amateur player with not only a chance to play in a Ryder Cup style event, but to play for pride. In this case, pride for whatever side of the river he hails from.”

Now lets be honest here – the goal was also to fuel competitive fire and state rivalry with loud golf bragging rights and chest thumping. Stir the pot and do something for Joe Six-pack? That’s Steve Czaban; the pulse of the Great American Sportsman (that’s “Hominus Sporticus Americanum” as Czabe says).

With those dual goals in mind, the Potomac Cup matches were born in 2001. Each year, hundreds of hopeful DC area amateur golfers play their way through two grueling qualifiers in the hopes of landing one of eight at large spots on each of the fourteen man teams representing either Maryland or Virginia. In order to improve the chances of mid to high handicappers, entrants – playing as two man best-ball teams - play the qualifiers with the benefit of their handicaps. The survivors head off to a first rate golf resort for a three day competition modeled closely after the Ryder Cup matches - two days of two-man team competition and a final day of singles play.

As the years have progressed, the tournament’s renown has grown significantly, creating not only a genuine interstate buzz preceding the matches, but generating new economic partnerships for the matches. “Relationships with manufacturers and vendors created sponsorships and also provided things for the players like balls, hats, uniforms and bags” said Jeff Sheehan of tournament corporate sponsor Pros and Hackers Magazine. “I get goose bumps when I think about how this has taken on a life of its own and become one heck of an event.”

Sheehan’s goose bumps had better subside in a hurry. He is also the playing captain of the Maryland side which has dropped the last two matches to the Virginians. This year will mark the sixth battle between Maryland and Virginia amateurs. Virginia holds a 3-2 lead in the series and won last year’s Cup in a squeaker 18-1/2 to 17-1/2. Gambling experts presently give the edge in this year’s matches to Virginia as well, based on their greater depth 1-14 through the roster and since more players have Potomac Cup experience than on the Maryland side.

Still, email chatter from the Maryland players shows them remarkably loose on the eve of the matches, discussing such minutiae as the pros and cons of all black uniforms, who’s the dorkiest dresser (Michael “The other team could make trouble for us if they win” Kurtz seems the consensus pick according to his teammates), and which team members should sleep with one eye open for fear of late night hi-jinks.

The Virginians however are mellow and closed mouth. Czaban, who also captains “Team Commonwealth” and has never been known to give three scoops of unflavored yogurt for a quote, was tight lipped and respectful about the opposition. “There’ll be plenty of time to talk later.”

The participants are as varied in their personalities as they are in their handicaps. Some players have serious golf pedigrees. Vance Welch, playing in his third Potomac Cup for Virginia, also played in the 2006 U.S. Amateur Public Links. He actually quit his job to compete. John Rhodes of Maryland beat Tour Pro Notah Begay by one shot at the 1997 U.S. Open Qualifier. “Yeah, he has won four tour events since and I sell mortgages” he quipped glibly.

Such is the lunchpail ethos of many a Potomac Cupper, as for every Amateur qualifier, there is also one high handicapper. Bill Mullikan and Terry Norell- an 18 and 15 handicap respectively – edged out three time Maryland team members Robert Ingram and Sang Trinh at one of this year’s qualifiers. Ingram, a mid-80s player, is no stranger himself to Potomac Cup drama. Derek Vandertang sank the Cup clinching putt against him last year to secure Virginia’s successful title defense. If history is any guide this year, it will again be a higher handicapper who determines the outcome.

Excitement is especially high this year as the famous Mystic Rock course at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. The course frequently appears in various magazine’s “Top 100 you can play” lists and hosts the PGA Tour’s 84 Lumber Classic, won by the likes of David Toms, Robert Allenby, Vijay Singh and John Daly. The course conditioning looks to be especially good as last week it hosted the Pennsylvania State Open and the 84 Lumber Classic begins in one month. Pete Dye designed the layout over rolling, rocky terrain.

“Nemacolin was a no-brainer for a host” said Sheehan. “They looked me right in the eye and said ‘We’re going to make those guys feel like they just played in the Ryder Cup.’”

While there won’t be any “Parade of the Wives” or black tie glitz, the tournament is unique for its successful blend of true state-line rivalry and accessibility to mid to high handicappers and has deservedly grown to national significance. After all, it’s not every day that “Everyday Joe” can suddenly play his favorite game for the greater glory of his home state. It’s like your college rivalry all over again. “The Potomac Cup?” asks Vance Welch, “It’s the biggest event of the year for us.”


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