U.S. AMATEUR FOUR-BALL
Memory Lane, Via Fairways and Greens December 12, 2016 | Middletown, N.J. By Tom Cunneff

The author (right) and his brother returned to their New Jersey roots to play in a 2017 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball qualifier at a familiar venue. (Tom Cunneff)

In his 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe famously wrote that “You can’t go back to your family, back home to your childhood.” And while that’s no doubt true due to the ever-changing nature of our lives, what about your home club? Is it possible to relive golf memories from your youth in a USGA event after three decades away?

I had the opportunity to find out in late August when I played in a qualifier for the 2017 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship, at Navesink Country Club in Middletown, N.J., with my older brother, Joe.

Since the USGA announced the creation of the Four-Ball in 2013, Joe and I had talked about trying to qualify if we could find the right venue. When I saw that Navesink was hosting a qualifier, it didn’t take much convincing for us to travel to the Jersey Shore from our respective homes – Joe in Sugar Land, Texas, and me in Charleston, S.C. If we were ever going to qualify, this was the place and time.

“Let’s do it as a tribute to Dad,” said Joe.

Our dad, Dr. Raymond Cunneff, loved golf and loved Navesink. All my experiences at the club as a young golfer pretty much revolve around playing with him. I became enamored with the game, from the shiny blades in his bag to the sound of the metal cleats of his golf shoes on the pavement; I just had to have my own pair of white kiltie wingtips. It obviously left a big impression on me since I not only took up the game with zeal after college, but also became a golf writer.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to play much golf with my dad as an adult as he became ill with a brain tumor the year I graduated college in 1982, and passed away five years later. He’s buried just a mile from the club, so after our practice round with one of the teams that ended up qualifying, we visited his grave for the first time in years and placed two golf balls with messages on his tombstone.

We were hoping the twilight cemetery visit and playing at Navesink would give us the mojo we would need to be one of the three teams out of 64 to qualify. We definitely would need something special with both of us playing our best on the sloping, 6,742-yard course to shoot a better-ball score in the mid-60s and have any chance of making it to Pinehurst in May.

Fate seemed to be on our side at first. Paired with two good players from Fordham University, we were the first group off No. 10, a short, downhill par 4 that used to be the first hole, so we were playing the routing we always remembered. A light fog – my favorite playing condition – settled over the course just before our 7:30 a.m. starting time. I snapped my tee shot left and was sure it was going out of bounds, but it stopped about a yard or two short. Better yet, I had an opening to the green between some hemlocks and made par. Joe’s birdie attempt from 10 feet just burned the right edge, but then I buried a 30-footer for birdie on the next hole, a 574-yard, saddleback par 5, and we were off.

Set amid rolling horse farms above its namesake river and designed by Hal Purdy in 1963, the layout, which hosted the LPGA Chrysler-Plymouth Classic in 1987 and 1988, slopes down in all directions from the expansive clubhouse. The terrain hasn’t changed since we last played it, but much about the course has recently, starting with the switching of the nines and the addition of 40 bunkers. The club also did a fair amount of tree removal, including an iconic beech that covered the corner of the long par-4 11th – now the second hole – that used to give our dad fits.

After making some good up-and-downs on our fifth and sixth holes as the sun broke through, we were still 1 under as we came to the long par-3 17th, but a bogey there and another at 18 left us 1 over as we made the turn. After two more bogeys on the front side for a best ball of 75 (10 strokes off qualifying), we were a little disappointed as we played the last few holes, but that didn’t take away one bit from the experience or the gratitude I had for the opportunity.

Maybe you can’t truly go home again because nothing is ever the same, but playing in a USGA qualifier with family at our childhood club that meant so much to our dad, I certainly felt at home.  

Tom Cunneff is a South Carolina-based freelance writer. 

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