Camaraderie and fellowship are supposed to be the defining characteristics of the World Club Championship. Year No. 9 of the best amateur event in golf delivered something more: pure, pulse-racing drama.
In a classic battle of youth versus experience, the Seminole Golf Club team of elder statesmen David Abell and Kelly Miller pipped the youngsters from Canada's St. George's Golf & Country Club, Mark Elgner and Colin Flabbi, 1-up. Against a stunning Pacific Ocean backdrop at Diamante Golf Club in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, the finalists produced an outcome that only a Hollywood scriptwriter could have dreamed up. In other words, it was a typical World Club Championship.
The World Club Championship is a week-long competition that pits 20 clubs representing 14 countries, the common denominator being membership on the list of Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses in the World. Each course nominates its club champion, who then selects a partner. Both must carry handicaps of 3 or better, though in fact, the majority of players are scratch or lower.
Mexico's Diamante Golf Club, ranked No. 58 in the World in 2011, proved to be a wildly popular host for the ninth edition of the tournament. Players raved about the Dunes course, the brand new clubhouse, the remarkable service and the festivities that accompanied the event. So good was this combination that it moved Pine Valley team member Robert Lewis Jr., four times a Walker Cup player and twice the captain, to remark that this event ranked right alongside his Walker Cup experiences.
Still, amid all of the pleasantries, there was serious golf to be played. Two qualifying rounds of stoke play produced a clear favorite, Ireland's Portmarnock Golf Club, comprised of John Greene and Geoff Lenehan, who blistered Diamante and the field with rounds of 65 and 63, easily qualifying for match play. Five shots back were Ryan Birnie and Sean Fenger of defending WCC champion Durban Country Club of South Africa. Seminole in Florida also qualified comfortably, but the final spot had to be decided by a playoff between St. George's and the Winged Foot team of Rob Christie and Matthew Hultquist. After several agonizing misses on the first two holes, an exhausted St. George's team triumphed on the third sudden death hole.
So it would stand to reason that Portmarnock and Durban would sail through to the final, right? Not even close. Both Seminole and St. George's pulled off upsets in surprisingly easy fashion, setting the stage for an unforgettable final. Abell and Miller, who won this event in 2006 at Sage Valley Golf Club in South Carolina while representing Pine Valley, fell behind after the first hole, but leveled the proceedings following Abell's heat-seeking missile drive to two feet at the par-4 4th. Seminole scratched out a 2-up lead after 11 holes, but St. George's parried with Elgner's birdies at the par-5 12th and par-5 14th.
That's when the Hollywood scriptwriters went into overdrive.
Somehow, in the midst of a brilliant run, Elgner three-putted the par-4 15th. 1-up Seminole. At the petite par-3 16th, ocean waves crashing in the backdrop, Abell and Miller hit it close, while Elgner missed to the left, just off the green. Flabbi found the wrong side of the green, making a two-putt nearly impossible. No matter — Elgner ran in his putt from the light fringe for a birdie 2. Seminole had to match — and did.
At the 17th, one of the game's greatest modern par 5s, a favorable wind allowed players ideal opportunities to scale the 50-foot sand cliff with their second shots and three of them did. Only Seminole's Miller was forced to lay back. Again, no matter. With one of the greatest clutch shots in the nine-year history of the World Club Championship, Miller knocked a gap wedge from 94 yards up the hill, onto the green and just past the blind hole location. It bit perfectly and trickled back three feet, right into the cup. Eagle! The sizable gallery erupted. Game, set and match, perhaps? Not quite.
After eagle try misses from Abell and Flabbi, Elgner steadied himself and rolled one at the hole in an attempt to extend the match. Bam! Back of the cup — another eagle! Seminole remained 1 up. To the 18th the disbelieving crowd marched.
After Flabbi flirted with the desert off the tee, both teams had the green surrounded after their approaches, but each with challenges. It all came down to the other three players. Miller's effort from just off the front-left of the green got caught up in the sticky paspalum and left him woefully short, perhaps 12 feet from the cup. Abell gave his a spirited run, but it scooted four feet past the hole. Elgner's attempt was well-gauged, curling to two feet. Seminole conceded the 4 to St. George's.
It was up to Miller and his 12-footer or Abell from a ticklish four feet. Leaving nothing to chance, it was Miller time, for the second hole in a row. He stroked his long putter and there was never a doubt. Down it went — victory, and the Jay Lee Trophy — for Seminole. To borrow a catch phrase from another group of players, "These guys are good." Not only that, but they play for the love of the game, not for the dollars — or the pesos.
Almost as suspenseful was the match for third place, which earns an automatic invitation to the 2013 World Club, to be played May 20-24 back at its birthplace, the Club at Nine Bridges in Jeju Island, South Korea. Portmarnock nabbed the honor, slipping by Durban, 1 up. Kudos also to the Royal Troon team of Paul Moultrie and Michael Smyth, who captured the Chairman's Division for the second straight year, earning them a return to the WCC in 2013 as well.
David V. Smith, the World Club Championship Founder and Ken Jowdy, the week's host and Founder of Diamante, had identical words following play: "That was amazing."
Indeed it was.
Viewers can watch the 2012 World Club Championship highlights on Golf Channel, on Monday, December 17, at 12:30 pm EST, with a re-broadcast on Wednesday, December 19 at 4 pm EST. Sky Television will broadcast throughout Europe.