Labor Day tournament looms

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 9, 2014

SALISBURY — Seated at a round table at the Country Club of Salisbury like King Arthur’s knights, Jake Kennedy, Davis Richards, Logan Shuping, Nick Lyerly and Michael Childress announced their ages.
There was no seating chart, but as they took turns revealing their birth dates, the teenagers happened to proceed in order counter-clockwise from oldest to youngest — from the 18-year-old Kennedy to Richards (17), to Shuping (16), to Lyerly (15), and finally to Childress, a 14-year-old with the poise and confidence of someone twice his age.
“Hey, I’m not giving my age,” quipped Jake Alexander, when it was his turn to speak.
Alexander, who has swung golf clubs somewhat longer than the five young guns, is the tournament director of the upcoming Crowder-Dorsett Memorial Four-Ball Labor Day event.
That’s a mouthful, but basically you can just call this event Rowan golf’s Super Bowl.
While he cracked a few jokes, the tournament means the world to Alexander. He played in it as his father’s partner and he also played it in it as his son’s partner. The Four-Ball has been a cross-generational thread that has woven Rowan golfing families together for decades.
Alexander and Stan Honeycutt brought five of Rowan’s phenoms together in one place Thursday as sort of an unofficial pre-tournament press conference.
“They’re all amazing golfers,” Alexander said. “They all have very complete games already. They’re all contenders. They’re all capable of winning this year’s championship.”
There were no clubs and no tees present at the round table, although there was sweet tea, Cokes, chips and fries. The fries, with a serious assist from Kennedy and Richards, the tournament’s defending champs, didn’t last long.
The Labor Day Four-Ball tournament has cast a huge shadow since its inception in 1952 and is a uniquely Rowan County event steeped in tradition, lore and history.
Still, times have changed for traditional golf tournaments just as they have for phone companies, newspapers and post offices. People are busier, money is tighter, and there’s less time for leisure. It’s like the clock is always on fast-forward.
All the flights in the Labor Day Four-Ball haven’t been filled in recent years. That’s a concern to guys like Alexander and Honeycutt, so they’re stirring up interest early this year. The Country Club has sent out 800 invitations to potential players. There’s still time to register. Deadline is Sunday, Aug. 17.
Kennedy will be a Gardner-Webb freshman in a few weeks, while Richards, who has committed to N.C. State, will be a South Rowan senior. Richards has enjoyed a sensational summer that included holding his own with touring pros in a U.S. Open sectional qualifier in Ohio. Pressure doesn’t faze Richards.
“I like having a gallery,” he said.
Kennedy was 17 and Richards was 16 when they set the Country Club of Salisbury course ablaze in last year’s Four-Ball. They barely qualified for the Championship Flight with a 70, but they were a freight train after that.
Kennedy put together 15 straight holes of perfect golf in the semifinals. Then both teens were scintillating in the championship match. There was a stream of birdies. They won the first six holes, and when Richards eagled No. 8, it was time to turn out the lights.
As Corey Basinger, one of the head-shaking runners-up told the Post’s Dave Shaw after that match, “We got to watch the future of golf in Rowan County.”
As defending champs, Kennedy and Richards won’t have to go through the qualifying process this year. That’s a perk and an advantage, as if they needed it.
“Jake doesn’t get enough credit for how well he played last year,” Richards said. “He played fantastic golf.”
Kennedy, a West Rowan grad, regards last year’s Four-Ball as a highlight of his career.
“I remember reading about it, about it being the 60th Four-Ball tournament, and there was a pretty huge buildup for it,” Kennedy said. “It’s a tournament that’s so rich in tradition. You look at the list of the people who have won it, and it’s college All-Americans and all-time greats. It’s just a very well-known tournament. It meant a lot to win it.”
While Richards and Kennedy blitzed the field in 2013 and are older, stronger, wiser and better this year, there are no guarantees that they’ll repeat. There’s a lot of talent out there, and a lot of people could get hot at the right time.
Shuping qualified for the First Flight last year and has put together a tremendous summer. The East Rowan rising junior already has been a county and conference prep champion and he recently tied the McCanless Course record with a 61.
Shuping shot a five-birdie 68 in a round at Lexington’s Sapona Ridge in a major junior tournament earlier this week and will again be playing in the Four-Ball with former East athlete Jordan Shepherd. Shepherd was a pretty good point guard for the Mustangs a few years ago.
“I think I learned a lot from playing here last year, and I think my game has been improving,” Shuping said. “I haven’t had a big jump forward or anything, but I’ve had slow, steady improvement.”
Lyerly, a rising sophomore at East, is from a golfing family and was a Championship Flight qualifier with his father, Roger, last year. This time Nick will be playing with Steve Gegorek, a veteran who also was in the Championship Flight a year ago, and is a perennial contender.
“The Country Club is one of the nicer courses you’ll find anywhere,” said Lyerly, who won the SPC tournament at Corbin Hills last spring. “It’s just a special tournament to play in.”
Lyerly also has been on a roll this summer. He was a semifinalist in the North Carolina Junior Open in late June, won a Tarheel Youth event with a 69 in early July and was recently runner-up in the Rowan County Amateur at Corbin.
Childress said his biggest thrill so far was winning the North Carolina Middle School Championship in Badin, He’ll be a freshman at Cannon School in the fall, and he’s someone you’ll likely be hearing about for many years to come. Childress drew a lot of attention with his recent run to the semifinals in the Warrior’s Rowan Masters. Interestingly, he’ll be paired in the Four-Ball with Charlie Graeber, his middle school coach.
“I’ve been fortunate to be following all the great players that we have in the county now,” Childress said. “All these guys are really good. I’ve progressed from playing with them.”
Childress was startled to see a gallery of 40 people watching him at the Masters, but there’s plenty of interest in golf all over Rowan County.
Alexander said that to go along with that interest, the county has more good young golfers then he can remember at any one point in history.
“There are a lot of reasons for that,” Alexander said. “They’ve got better equipment now. They’ve got a lot more tournaments to play in now and they get to play under pressure against great competition at a young age. They’ve also got more good courses to play. We didn’t have the Warrior and the Crescent when I was coming along.”
Alexander is a golf fan — the PGA tournament’s first round unfolded silently on a television screen as the young golfers chatted and ate — and he’d be the first to tell you that the Rowan Amateur, which has been around since 1979, and the Rowan Masters, considered a major since its inception in 2003, are wonderful golf tournaments.
Still, the Labor Day Four-Ball remains special. It’s the tournament that was won by the county legends such as Harry Welch and A.D. Dorsett, and it’s the tournament with the team concept.
“This is the tournament everyone wants to win,” Alexander said. “It’s unique because of the format. There aren’t many Four-Ball tournaments and Four-Ball is the most exciting golf, especially for spectators. When you’ve got a partner, you can take chances, and taking chances makes for very exciting golf.”
It’s been exciting for six decades. Young golfers such as Kennedy, Richards, Shuping, Lyerly and Childress should keep it that way for many decades to come.
As they exited the Country Club, Kennedy and Richards paused at a wall plaque and rubbed their fingers over their names at the bottom of the long list of champions.
“It’s gonna be tough,” Kennedy announced. “But we’re ready to defend.”