By Trent Bouts
A look at a southern turf tradition: the Virlina Cup involving the Carolinas GCSA and Virginia GCSA.
Billy Lewis, the son of a small-town bricklayer, was a welder early in life until one-day a workmate got him out on the golf course. Intrigued, Lewis soon had himself a set of second-hand clubs. A few decades later, he stands at the head of a table in the dining room at venerable Princess Anne Country Club in Virginia Beach and says: “I never ever dreamed I would be in a place like this.”
Lewis, golf course superintendent at Dormie Club near Pinehurst, N.C., is speaking as captain of the Carolinas GCSA team in the annual challenge against their counterparts from Virginia. Next year marks the 10th anniversary of what is known as the Virlina Cup, two days of friendly but earnest play-it-as-it-lies competition in the style of the Ryder Cup. The regions alternate as hosts. At the 2018 welcome dinner, Lewis, who played in the inaugural matches at Kinloch Golf Club, is giving first-timers a hint of what to expect.
“This is a memory that, while it won’t be like having your first child, or the day you were married, it is something that 10, or 15, or 20 years from now, you will remember fondly,” he says. “You’ll make lifelong relationships with people you would never have met otherwise. Golf has taken me so many places. This is one of those experiences that, at some point in time, you will look back on and cherish.”
New relationships and great memories were two of the goals for the matches devised by former colleagues Matt Boyce and Paul Jett, CGCS. They worked together at Pinehurst over the period when Jett hosted the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens on No. 2. When Boyce took a job up north, at Princess Anne, and found himself on the Virginia GCSA board as well as the golf committee, he called his old boss. He had an idea for something they’d agreed in the past was dwindling – superintendent golf. It wasn’t simply a matter of not playing as much as they used to, it was that superintendents had so few forums to play with a purpose or, just as importantly, with any real presence.
Both excellent players – Jett is a four-time runner-up in GCSAA’s national championship – they enjoyed benefits as a result of that prowess. It earned them an added level of respect among good golfers, who are often well-represented in club leadership, on boards and green committees. Boyce and Jett saw value in extrapolating that experience. “As superintendents, we’ve always just wanted a seat at the table,” Boyce says. “That’s a seat at the table with the golf pro’s, the general managers, the members, the players, everyone who has a say in how we go about our work.”
That includes politicians, too. At the 2016 matches, at Belle Haven Country Club in Alexandria, Va., U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, (R-NC) served as guest starter, shaking hands and posing for photos with players. “He was genuinely interested in the role of the golf course superintendent and asked a lot of great questions,” Carolinas GCSA executive director Tim Kreger said at the time. “It was an excellent start to what we hope will be a long-term relationship.”
“I think golf is an excellent avenue for us to win that seat at the table,” Boyce says. “When people like a U.S. Senator, or my general manager, or other golf enthusiasts, see the folks who actually take care of the course also have a passion for the game, it just opens some doors, offers some platforms, that might not have been there otherwise.”
Critical to the success of the eight vs. eight competition has been the sponsorship support of Syngenta, providing accommodation, uniforms, dinners – formal and informal – beverages and special touches such as a printed program with player profiles. Syngenta’s Virginia-based Steve Dorer, previously a superintendent in North Carolina, was Boyce’s first call in the search for a sponsor. “I love playing golf, but I also love watching competitive golf and I know how well many of you play,” Dorer told the two teams over dinner at Princess Anne in October. “So, for me it was a no-brainer. I didn’t think about how long it might go on, but this is the ninth year and it’s turned out very well.”
Trent Bouts is a golf writer and editor based in Greer, S.C., and is a GCI contributor.
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