This year’s Army-Navy golf match was at Pine Valley, here’s how it played out

December 10, 2019

Pat Owen, head coach of the Navy golf team, had a problem. In even years, Navy goes to West Point and plays Army in a two-day match there. In odd years, Army comes to Annapolis, in small-town Maryland. Owen’s problem was that 2019 is an odd year, the Navy course was closed for renovations and the historic Army-Navy golf match requires a chunk of weekend tee times in the gorgeous light of early fall.

And then one day a slender, red-haired man with an unassuming manner walked into the pro shop of the Naval Academy Golf Course, got wind of the problem and proposed a solution: Could the dual match be held at Pine Valley, conveniently located off the Jersey Turnpike?

The red-haired gent was the president of Pine Valley. Owen did not say, “Can I get back to you?”

Early on a Friday morning in October, eight cadets, two assistant coaches and Army’s head coach, Chad Bagley, made the trip south from upstate New York to southern New Jersey. On that same morning, eight midshipmen, two assistants and Pat Owen headed north.

They played a practice round on Friday. (“No rakes?!” No rakes.) Everybody stayed on the property and ate in the same mess hall, the breakfast room in the sturdy Pine Valley clubhouse. The two teams, in their tradition, played four better-ball matches on Saturday. At the end of the first day, it was West Point 3, Navy 1.

The Army-Navy match got tight on Pine Valley's back nine.

All that remained was the Saturday night full-dress dinner, the seven Sunday singles matches, the distribution of gold stars to the winners, the bus ride home.

Also, various memories-in-waiting: the ski jump buried under the 2nd green, the hilarious bunker on seven called Hell’s Half Acre, the back-nine par 5 that’s 600 yards up a hill, the piney soap, the portraits of the dead men who built the place; the members, their guests, the caddies and the club employees thanking these 16 young men at every turn, for what they’re doing, and what they will do, in the name of country.

They’re nearly full-time golfers; they are full-time students; they’re nearly full-time officers-in-training. They leave for college as teenagers and the federal government requires them to fill out a will.

Navy had only one senior, Thomas Garbee. “I want to go out first, I want to lead the way,” Garbee told his coach. That’s the spirit!

Garbee batted leadoff on Sunday. “I’m three down through three holes on the hardest course in America,” Garbee said later. He didn’t panic. He thought of what Jay Brunza, the retired Navy psychologist who once worked with Tiger Woods and now works with the Navy golf team, had told him. To get it down to two words: Keep breathing. Garbee won his singles match, 2 up. The overall tally was now 3-2, Army.

Garbee made a U-turn and headed back to 17, to the last live singles match. If Charlie Musto of Navy could beat Marshall Daniel of Army, the overall match would be tied, meaning a playoff. Musto was 1 up on 17. On the tee of the par-4 18th, the singles match was even. Musto’s second shot on the home hole finished in a deep trap that guards the green. He crossed a wide moat on a wooden foot bridge and charged up Pine Valley’s final hill, hoping for a clean, no-footprint lie. He descended into the sand pit, considered his good fortune, splashed out well but made 5. His opponent made an excellent 4 from the back of the green. Army won, 6.5 to 4.5.

Army now has 37 wins in the series to Navy’s 44, with one tie. Navy lost a home match, at Pine Valley. The next Army-Navy match at Navy will be in 2021, on its old-timey William Flynn course, river breath on it.

“You’re 1 up on 17 and you lose 1 down, at Pine Valley,” Charlie Musto said later. He didn’t need to add, that hurts. “I don’t think anybody could say anything that was going to make me feel better, but knowing that you have your brothers there to fall back on, that helps.” That’s the spirit.

Before he stepped out of that bunker on 18, Musto smoothed his footprint. One slow soccer kick will do it. He knows that you can always leave the course — your home course, Pine Valley, wherever — better than you found it. Your country, the same.

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