MAMARONECK, NY – One’s called “Sandman,” because he puts opponents in a sleeper hold until they succumb. The other, “Phatty” to his friends, is one of a fourball tandem known as “The Silent Assassins,” that used to go undefeated through state championship caliber fields. Yet this week these former rivals teamed up in the USGA Fourball at storied Winged Foot Golf Club, and even though they didn’t make the match play bracket, they blazed a trail for other veterans of the Potomac Cup – the Maryland vs. Virginia battle that is perhaps golf’s greatest border war.
“Everything about the Fourball was magical,” beamed a buoyant Don Phattiyakul, still basking in the afterglow of the USGA’s wildly popular new competition. “From the moment we set foot on the property, until we left Sunday night, it was perfect”
Well maybe not everything, Don and partner Lee Flemister, a.k.a. Sandman, soared to a 77 on the opening day of the tournament, dragged down by two double bogeys on 13 and 17, the treacherous back nine par-3s on the East Course. Their 8-over total for the 36 holes left them treading water in the lower nether-reaches of the leaderboard, but that didn’t matter. The atmosphere at any USGA event is one of camaraderie, altruism, and classâ€¦first class all the way.
“To play in a USGA event is the highest of the highlights of an amateur golfer’s career,” Phattiyakul said gratefully.
Then, of course, there’s Winged Footâ€¦the Yankee Stadium of golf.
“Winged Foot is the greatest 36 hole facility on the world,” Phattiyakul beamed. “The thrill you feel with all that history at every turn just overwhelms you. The courses, the clubhouse, even the locker rooms, every step you take you walk in the footsteps of the game’s greats.”
“Unforgettable,” Flemister agreed. “And we almost didn’t even get there!”
Indeed, it was an unconventional route the team took to get into the field, and it involved elation, heartbreak, and then elation again. One of the first groups off at the Worthington Manor qualifier in Urbana, Maryland, the pair fired a blistering 64, the low round of the morning tee times.
“And we bogeyed a par-3,” Phattiyakul snarled, his voice dripping with irony. Still other players congratulated them. They looked a mortal lockâ€¦until a 63 and a fistful of 64s came in late. All of a sudden they had to come back the next morning for a 5-for-1 playoff.
“They started us on a par-3, and we were first off again,” said Phattiyakul. “I hit it to a foot. A couple more turns and it was in.”
They tapped in, looking good for the second time in 18 hours.
Then it happened again. The last group sank a ten-footer for birdie, and the playoff continued. Two holes later, their opponents made another birdie and the Fourball field, while Don and Lee were the first alternates.
“Lee called the USGA to find out what we should do, and they told us we could show up and wait to see if we got in, and we planned on dong just that, but then a week later they called back – someone had withdrawn and we were in,” Phattiyakul explained.
The USGA rule is that you must play the event with the partner with whom you qualified. There were plenty of reasons why someone might have to pass on their bid – the NCAA Championships, for example, conflicted, meaning a few teams had to turn down the bid.
Just like that, there they were, names being called at Winged Foot:
“On the tee, Lee Flemister and Don Phattiyakulâ€¦”
They even pronounced Don’s last name correctly.
“We had a rough time on the East Course the first day, so for fun on the second day we played a stroke play match on the West Course against the team we were paired with, two kids from the University of Washington,” Flemister recalled. “I’ll never forget itâ€¦I birdied 17, [Author’s Note: one of only four birdies on 17 West the whole day], and then cinched the match with a sandie in front of everyone on 18.”
With poor Don, jailed in the same trees that doomed Phil Mickelson – left of left – and the match on the line, Flemister’s up and down from the frighteningly deep greenside bunker brought the gallery to its feet. What a way to bow out.
Meanwhile, the USGA did it, hey got the whole country playing more fourball.
“We love the format,” Phattiyakul said excitedly. “We just had a great run at the Bellhaven fourball tournament, which was won by another former Potomac Cup player, Frank Romano.”
Indeed, the Potomac Cup makes an excellent feeder for tournaments like the USGA Fourball or the Anderson Memorial. Phattiyakul teamed with outstanding amateur Dae Chung for a three-year record of 11-1 when they played for Virgina. Meanwhile Flemister still occasionally pairs with Jeff Lim-Sharpe, the formerly long-haired wunderkind who recently re-acquired his amateur status and appears by all accounts ready to go on a tear through the mid-amateur ranks. That team – known as Sandman and Captain Caveman – won several matches with hair-raising comebacks, twice erasing 5-down deficits into wins for the Maryland squad. And then, of course, there’s Vance Welch, the unquenchable dynamo of a golfer who was the number one player for the Maryland squad for over a decade.
But it’s not just DelMarVa celebrating the USGA Fourball. The entire golf world has embraced the event. Golfers from over 30 different countries tried to qualify for the field that teed off at Winged Foot last weekend. And with Pinehurst hosting the event next year, look for that number to swell.
“It was an amazing experience. They set the golf course up totally fair, the atmosphere was unparalleled,” beamed Phattiyakul.