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So much of the Idylwylde Invitational remains unchanged
2021-07-23
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As Dave Morland accepted the handsome International Nickel Company Trophy from Ralph Parker, assistant to the general manager at Inco, in the summer of 1948, little could the two gents know that nearly three quarters of a century later, golfers from across the province would still gather on the grounds of the Idylwylde Golf & Country Club to contest the longest-standing match play tournament in the nation.

Berk Keaney was not around to witness that historic curtain riser – but as a member for 45 years now, the local lawyer is nearing (perhaps exceeding) fifty years of involvement with the event. “I sat on the bench when I was a kid, I wanted so much to play in the Invitational,” suggested the former club champion.

“At that time, you couldn’t be a member of the Idylwylde as a kid unless your dad was a member. But sure enough, somebody didn’t show up and I got to play in my first one when I was 17 or 18.”

Championship flight is no longer a very realistic goal for Keaney. Like the majority of the field, he has seen his focus shift to the more social side of things. For as much as the Idylwylde Invitational is steeped deep in wondrous golfing lore, the real charm of the weekend lies in the ability to reconnect (probably even more so in 2021, after the 2020 tournament fell victim to Covid).

“Gone are the days of living the dreams of past glory,” said Keaney with a laugh. “You get out there and get it around the course now and have some fun. Seeing the guys coming back who always come back to town is what it’s all about.”

“We just sit around and tell stories, some of them the same old stories, even if the details change just a little bit over time.”

Those details are non-morphed when it comes to the 1988 playdowns, when Keaney eliminated former Ontario Amateur champ Paul Davis in the first round, coming back from four down at 12 before being sent packing in the semis.

Likewise, the qualifying round of eighteen holes played alongside side two-time US Amateur champion Gary Cowan, a perk from having earned Idylwylde club bragging rights the previous year, remains a highlight. As for friends and acquaintances who might now be attending the Invitational for the very first time, Keaney offers the following sage advice.

“What they really have to know to score is where to put the ball on their second shots,” he said. “Do not get above certain pins. The greens are small and narrow and can be really draining on you, mentally.”

“This course is such a jewel, and not only aesthetically. It plays tougher than its yardage.”

No need to convince Cam Hreljac.

Though the 59 year-old long-time resident of Bowmanville was born in Sudbury and introduced to the tournament via his uncle (Eddie) and cousins, the two-time finalists (he lost in both 2002 & 2003 to Kurt Kowaluk) has persisted in making the trek north with different connections now maintained.

“When my uncle first invited, when I was 24 or so, I really only knew my family who played,” said Hreljac. “As the years passed, I kept coming up and my family stopped playing. I had met so many people. It’s fun first, even if you obviously want to play good golf.”

More often than not, Hreljac has done just that, a testament to his knowledge of the course and his affinity for match play competition. “It can play long, just because you have to hit certain clubs off certain tees, just to put it in the right place, especially on the back nine. And I look forward to match play, especially getting a bit older.”

“I can play three or four bad holes, but if I can put 14 good holes together, I still have a chance.”

Sault Ste Marie native Frank Kuchar might not have quite the tournament longevity of the two previously quoted gents, though his tournament resume is equally as impressive. In 2010, Kuchar fell 1 up to Ryan Willoughby and has advanced to quarter-finals or better three times since then.

None of that success has diminished the admiration that he has for the course.

“It really is about giving this course the respect that it deserves, playing it the way that it should be played,” suggested the 40ish tournament veteran who played for the very first time when the father (Al) of his close friend (Kyle Jones) initially paid his entry fee. “You just look at the way that it’s built.”

“If you don’t take it serious, it’s going to get you.”

More than anything, the years of making the trip east from the Lock City have allowed Kuchar to narrow his focus as he readies himself for the Friday shootout.

“Experience is something that takes care of you over the years,” he stated. “You learn not to push the issue, because it’s easy to get a big number instead of just staying in control and being strategic about your plan.”

“The key for me is getting off the tee and putting myself in position where I need to be. It’s as simple as that.”

Taking on the position of tournament chair in 1995, Robbie Coe has witnessed a ton of great golf in the past 25 years. Though each and every year features its own twists and turns, there is a consistency that can be found in so many aspects of this Sudbury summer tradition.

“We still try and get the best quality players from across the country – and we want to make the event fun for all of the less competitive players,” Coe explained. “If you look at the course, bunkers have changed, we’ve redone a number of greens. But it’s the same layout, the same 6700 yards, and the scores don’t change too much for the top 16.”

That top 16 is a stratosphere that Kyle Rank knows all too well. The Elmira native, who has titles in 2016 and 2014 to his credit, has qualified for championship flight play eight of the past nine years (not counting the cancelled 2020 event). And for as much as the Idylwylde Invitational immediately conjures up images of camaraderie, there was also the uniqueness of 2013.

“My best memory is the year that we had the playoff and they had to pull the cars around the old putting green here,” recalled Rank, who was one of nine participants in the unique tie-breaker as weather backed up the entire field on Friday by some two to three hours. “That was probably the highlight of the fifteen years that I’ve been here.”

“We always share that story back home.”

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