CLIFTON, NJ. This week's LPGA Cognizant Founders Cup is being played at Upper Montclair Country Club (UMCC) for the second time starting today.
The event showcases the rich tradition of professional golf at the Clifton-based club which dates back to 1901. For me, the connection to UMCC is both personal and professional.
My family has lived in Clifton since the end of World War II. My father took up golf primarily as a recreational endeavor and while my interest in sports was primarily football, basketball and baseball, it was golf that eventually stole my heart.
Back in 1970, UMCC hosted the highest purse for a professional golf event (Dow Jones Open Invitational) with a $60,000 first prize check. I attended the event as a 13-year-old with my father and he made it a point to show me firsthand what high caliber professional golf was all about. Seeing Arnold Palmer in action for the first time was spellbinding.
Since that event my intersection with UMCC deepened as my love for golf blossomed. During high school years, I bicycled there and worked as a caddie. The close involvement with adult members served me well, providing the foundation in knowing the timeless values of listening and serving others. The ranks were hierarchical - you earned your keep by the following caddie maxim - show up, shut up and keep up.
The caddie master was John Foulkrod, a former Marine and Bloomfield resident. His memory was razor sharp. If he asked you to do something he did not expect to repeat it twice. If he needed you at a certain time, you learned being ten minutes prior to the time indicated was the preferred course of action to follow.
One of the perquisites of caddying was being extended privileges to play the course on Mondays when the club was generally closed. That privilege was not an automatic one, you needed to be ever diligent in how you serviced members.
Among the key members I got to know quite well was Chet Sanok. The winner of the MGA and NJSGA Open titles, he is the only amateur ever to have achieved that feat and he clearly is among the greatest to have come from the NY / NJ metro area.
I also came in close contact with a number of key Clifton officials, those elected and others who were prominent. The roster of members included a broad array of talented professionals in a wide range of careers. I got to know them well as the player / caddie relationship needs to be a close one to foster success.
The center point for the membership was a deep love for golf and the joy in being in the company of others who felt similarly.
The women and seniors come to UMCC
When professional golf returned to UMCC it was the best female players showing their golfing abilities. The 1979 LPGA Coca Cola Classic was a memorable event. Five players tied for the lead and the playoff included the shining star of the moment, Nancy Lopez, and the player cited as the greatest female player of all-time, Mickey Wright.
Thousands flocked to the club and the playoff was narrowed down to just Lopez and Wright after the three other players fell to the wayside following the first playoff hole. The 22-year-old Lopez captured the event on the second hole of the playoff with a triumphant birdie putt. UMCC was the stage in providing a final curtain call for Wright and a jubilant kick-off for a brilliant Hall-of-Fame career Lopez was about to embark upon.
Other professional women's events would be hosted in the years to follow.
From 1993-2002 the next phase of professional golf came to UMCC and this time it was the marriage of senior professional male players 50 years of age and older playing alongside National Football League stars. The initial few years of the Cadillac NFL Classic were electric. More people came out to UMCC during the early rounds in order to meet up close such football greats as Dan Marino, John Elway, Jerry Rice and Emmet Smith, to name just a few. In the final years of that event, it became commonplace for NFL players to stage their own events and the luster of the tournament at UMCC began to wane.
Nonetheless, there are only a few clubs in the United States to have staged the three distinct professional tours at a given facility.
One of the USA's oldest golf clubs
Interestingly, while Clifton is now home to UMCC, the genesis for the club came from more modest beginnings when founded in 1901. A five-hole rudimentary course existed in the area of Grove Street and Belleville Avenue. As golf flourished in the United States there were various moves made to secure more land and create a functional golf course that induced others to join.
By 1903, UMCC had expanded to nine holes. That evolved over the years, with new nines opening in 1909, 1910 and 1930, the last an A.W. Tillinghast design. The growth expanded the property to include land within Clifton, which had incorporated as a city in 1917.
In 1946, State Highway 3 was completed and the surrounding open space became less and less so as the post war suburbs were rapidly growing. By the mid 1950s the Garden State Parkway ate away six of the holes and the club wisely hired the most prolific architect of the day, Robert Trent Jones, Sr. based in Montclair.
Jones maintained 27 holes with the new layout that opened in 1957 but the connection to Upper Montclair was now in name only. The present course is split almost evenly between Clifton where the Tudor clubhouse and mailing address is located on Hepburn Road and neighboring Bloomfield.
Going forward with the Cognizant Founders Cup
My involvement this week will be on the media side. I have been personally on property as an observer for all but four of the 24 pro golf events played at UMCC.
As someone who has traveled the globe in covering golf's most important events for 40+ years, it is a joy to know I can sleep in my own bed and be just over three miles from the club.
One of my golf milestones took place at UMCC when I had the opportunity to play the course and have my Dad join me for a round of golf. Not long after that he would pass away.
Thousands of cars routinely travel the Garden State Parkway and nearby State Highway 3, the two main NJ roads that bracket the property. Many may only catch a fleeting glimpse of the verdant grounds. The bucolic 197-acres is likely unknown to many as they swiftly drive past.
Interestingly, the roster of members has also changed over the years. The roster is more diversified and includes a broad range of people with golf the focal point of emphasis.
Given the clear golf pedigree, UMCC is the ideal venue in staging the third installment of the Cognizant Founders Cup which salutes thirteen women who put into motion the beginnings of the LPGA Tour which started in 1950.
Much has changed since 1901 when UMCC first was organized. The open space prevalent in the earliest of time is all but eradicated now.
UMCC's penchant to continue on the frontlines in hosting top-tier events remains steadfast and embedded within its core. This week's event certainly marks another new chapter in its ongoing contributions to golf.