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By Rick Woelfel
Huntingdon Valley Country Club served up a demanding test for Suburban One’s finest golfers on Wednesday. Ben Cooley aced the exam.
The Abington junior fired a 3-over par 73 in demanding conditions to win the SOL individual championship. Cooley will head the contingent that will advance to the District One tournament next Tuesday and Wednesday at Turtle Creek Golf Club in Limerick.
Cooley’s effort left him five shots clear of the rest of the 90-player field. 2008 Suburban One and PIAA Eastern Regional champion Brandon Dalinka of Council Rock North wound up alone in second place with a 78. Drew Keeling of Neshaminy, Abington’s Rich Thorpe and Zach Pogust of Plymouth Whitemarsh all wound up at 79. Matt Japchen of Central Bucks West shared sixth place with Dan Hayes of Pennsbury at 81.
The top 35 finishers, regardless of conference, qualified for the district tournament. Originally, the competitors were required to shoot within 16 shots of the course rating (i.e. 88 or better) to advance, but tournament officials, with the approval of District One, dropped the target score requirement because of the winds, which gusted over 40 miles an hour at times.
The last spot was decided in a sudden-death playoff. As it turned out, six players tied at 88 for five available spots. Russ Hartung, Ryan Speak and Kevin Webb of Central Bucks East advanced, along Keith Clawson of Upper Merion, and Dennis Dotson of Pennsbury, after Alec Kissel of Plymouth Whitemarsh was eliminated at the first extra hole.
Cooley had something of a home-course advantage, since Abington plays its home matches at Huntingdon Valley, but his performance over one of the area’s most demanding golf courses was remarkable, nonetheless.
He played with Zach Herr of Council Rock North, Connor McNicholas of Hatboro-Horsham and Peter Eiler of Council Rock South in the first group of the day off the first tee. The quartet teed off at 8 a.m., before the worst of the winds hit, but their reprieve was short-lived.
“ It started to pick up when we got to six or seven,” Cooley said, “it was probably about 35 miles an hour. It was probably the hardest for putting because the wind just threw you off.”
With the wind howling and the greens as slick as usual at Huntingdon Valley, Cooley focused on hitting fairways and greens. He recorded two birdies, one at the 417-yard par-4 eighth and the other at the 362-yard par-4 11th. He completed the 18 holes without three-putting
“My putting has become a lot more consistent,” he said.
Dalinka noted that the windy conditions made club selection difficult.
“It was miserable,” he said. “You’d pick a club and you’d guess if it was the right one or not. You had to trust it. That was the hard part.
“The greens were impossible. I putted off the green twice. I hit the ball good. I just couldn’t get the right club, I guess.”
Seven of the top 10 finishers were from the National Conference. The Continental Conference had the most district qualifiers with 16. The National Conference had 14 and the American Conference five.
The top 10 finishers in each conference received medals; Pogust was low man in the American Conference while Japchen earned that distinction in the Continental.
The original starting field consisted of the 88 players who performed most effectively in the regular season, but was expanded to 90 to enable each team to send one representative even if they were not among the top 88.
Upper Moreland’s Adam Shotnerger was originally designated as his team’s representative, but wound up qualifying. He shot a round of 92, which looked to be good enough to get into the playoff for the last spots in the district field until late in the afternoon.
“I couldn’t seem to make any putts on the (Flynn Nine),” he said. “On the (Centennial Nine) I birdied the last hole. I was playing pretty good there.”
Shotnerger occasionally has access to the courses at Philmont Country Club, where he works as a caddy.
“This is my first year on the team,” he said. “I didn’t expect to get this far.”
Matt Brown was Cheltenham’s lone representative in the field. A baseball player with college aspirations, Brown has only been playing golf for a little over a year. He shot a 101, which left him in 81st place, a respectable effort in tough conditions on one of the region’s most demanding courses.
“I wanted to shoot in the low 90s,” he said. “It was windy and I didn’t putt too well.”
Like a number of other players in the field, Brown is not a member at a private club. He appreciated getting a look at Huntingdon Valley.
“I enjoyed it,” he said. “I don’t usually get out on courses like this.”
The championship was played over Huntingdon Valley’s seldom-used Centennial Nine, which re-opened in 1998 after being closed for over six decades, and the Flynn Nine, which serves as the back nine for regular member play. The par-70 layout played to 6,468 yards.