Year Number 7 of the World Club Championship proved lucky indeed for Los Angeles Country Club. In a spirited All-American duel, the LACC team of Dan Jennings and Brad Shaw dethroned defending champion Pine Valley Golf Club of New Jersey (Kelly Miller and David Abell) at Jeju Island, Korea's Club at Nine Bridges. For sustained drama, nothing might top the 2008 event at China's Pine Valley, where Pine Valley U.S.A. battled six extra holes before capturing the coveted Jay H. Lee Trophy. Nonetheless, the 2009 edition came close.
The World Club Championship is a week-long match-play tournament that pits 16 clubs from GOLF Magazine's list of the Top 100 Courses in the World. To be eligible for selection, a course nominates its club champion, who then selects a partner. Both must carry handicaps of 3 or better. In fact, the majority of players are Scratch or better, including both members of the winning team, who are both "plus" handicaps. Mr. Jennings holds the course record of 62 at LA North, a course ranked 47th in the world, while Mr. Shaw is close behind, a 63 being his best.
The way the Los Angeles Country Club and Pine Valley men traded birdies down the stretch, you could easily forget that these are club players, not seasoned tour pros. The nip-and-tuck affair proved to be a classic clash: East Coast vs. West Coast, youth (LACC) vs. experience (Pine Valley) and it all came down, as events usually do at Nine Bridges, to the exciting risk/reward par-5 18th.
Prior to the histrionics at the closing hole, however, there were countless intriguing storylines. First would be the glorious setting enjoyed by the competitors at the opening ceremony, where every player paraded in while their national anthem was played. A Jeju Island provincial art troupe performed traditional group dancing and a percussion performance.
Among the highlights of the qualifying round was the 67 (third-lowest) posted by Oakmont Country Club of Pennsylvania whose team consisted of the father-son pairing of Nathan and Robert Sutherland. An interesting, if confusing encounter in the first round took place when Pine Valley beat Pine Valley that is, Pine Valley Golf Club U.S.A., the defending champ, toppled Reignwood Pine Valley of China, host club to the 2008 WCC event. Five of the eight first-round matches went to the last hole, underscoring how competitive the golf was. Without question, the most delightful shocker was host club Nine Bridges winning its first-ever WCC match and in stunning fashion to boot, a 1-up victory over Northern Ireland's Royal Portrush, whose squad was anchored by past Walker Cup player and captain Garth McGimpsey.
The quarterfinals featured Pine Valley downing Australia's Royal Melbourne in a rematch of the 2008 WCC final and saw Nine Bridges' stirring run stopped by the youthful team from Canada's Hamilton Country Club. Los Angeles Country Club, whose hallways are adorned with a treasure trove of golf history, turned back the entry from the Cradle of Golf, Scotland's St. Andrews Golf Club. However, World Club Championship history was made by Tokyo Golf Club, whose 2-up win over Ireland's Portmarnock made it the first club from Asia to reach the semifinals of the event. The win was all the more impressive considering Portmarnock was led by club captain and European Senior Amateur Champion Adrian Morrow.
In the semis, Los Angeles and Pine Valley breezed through, setting up their epic final. If the Pine Valley team had the edge in experience (and Miller-Abell had competed together in 2008, representing Florida's Seminole Golf Club), L.A. had the firepower necessary to parry. Big putts kept dropping from both teams, none more important, according to Pine Valley's David Abell, than "the 45-foot birdie putt from nowhere" rendered by L.A.'s Dan Jennings on the par-4 15th, that gave L.A. a lead it would not relinquish. Pine Valley had a chance to send the match to extra holes at the watery, option-laden closing hole, but L.A. slammed the door shut. Said Abell of the encounter, "LACC shot 6-under for the round and we were 5-under, with no bogeys made by either team. It was a well-played match by both teams with LACC being the better putters on the day and the better team."
When he walked to the tension-filled 18th tee, Pine Valley's Kelly Miller exhaled, "This is what it's all about." Indeed, when you factor in the superb play, remarkable camaraderie and unforgettable pomp and circumstance of the opening and closing ceremonies, Miller phrased it exactly right: This is what the World Club Championship is all about.
Look for World Club Championship telecasts on the Golf Channel beginning in early August.