100th Open Championship gets underway Monday at Knickerbocker
A note to the NJ golf community:
While the NJSGA celebrates the 100th playing of its flagship competition, it will be done so with great care and concern for the health and safety of the players, officials, and Knickerbocker Country Club's staff and membership due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Please note that outside spectators are not permitted at Knickerbocker. Live, hole-by-hole scoring will be available throughout the week, as well as complete coverage at NJSGA.org and through the NJSGA's social media outlets: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr.
When the first tee shot is struck at Knickerbocker Country Club on Monday morning, July 20, in the New Jersey State Golf Association Open Championship, it will mark the beginning of a historic milestone – the 100th playing of the championship – as well as the return of the event to where it all started on May 18, 1921.
As has been the case each year since the first Open Championship was played at Knickerbocker, a talented field of New Jersey’s best professionals and amateurs will contend for the title. A total of 12 former champions who have hoisted the C.W. Badenhausen trophy are in the field: Marc Issler (2018) Tyler Hall (2016, ’15), Frank Esposito (2013, ’99), Brian Gaffney (2010), Brett Jones (2009), Mark McCormick (2008), Brian Komline (2007, ’05), Ed Whitman (2004, 1996, ’95, ‘91), Baker Maddera (2002), David Glenz (1990, ’88, ‘86, ’84), Steve Sieg (1989) and Bob Issler (1981).
Last year’s champion, Rutgers University student Chris Gotterup of Rumson Country Club, will not be on hand to defend his crown. Instead, Gotterup will travel to Johnstown, Pa., to compete in the prestigious Sunnehanna Invitational.
Other contenders for last year’s title, including decorated amateur Mike Muehr of Pine Valley Golf Club, the 2019 runner-up, and Tommy Avant of Arcola, the low professional who finished fourth in last year’s Open, will participate at Knickerbocker.
“It would be incredible to get my name on that trophy. I’ve won the Met Amateur and the Ike Championship, and there’s a lot of great names on those (trophies) too,” said Muehr, a native of Bernardsville who played three years on the PGA Tour. “I’ve always had an affinity for this area, and great classic courses like Knickerbocker.”
Avant, a native of Arizona who is in his second year as an assistant at nearby Arcola, is motivated to build on his success of 2019. “I love Knickerbocker, and I’m excited to defend my pro title. Of course, my goal is to win the Open outright. I’m playing well, and my game is in good shape,” said Avant, who recently qualified for the National Car Rental Assistants Championship in November.
Mike Stamberger of Manasquan River won the 2014 NJSGA Amateur Championship at Knickerbocker. He was the only player to finish under par in that event – and he likes his chances now, six years later.
“Fortunately, I’ve been able to play a lot of golf during the pandemic and I’m really looking forward to Knickerbocker. It is a great Donald Ross course, and I admire its architecture and the greens. The course really fits my eye,” Stamberger said.
Another contender is Pat Fillian of Echo Lake who won the New Jersey PGA Head Professionals’ Championship on home turf in mid-June. The 2014 NJPGA Section Champion is off to a good start in 2020, with multiple top-five finishes in the early stages of the season.
“Knickerbocker is very challenging around the greens. It is old-course architecture that is almost untouched by time. It will take great driving of golf ball, great chipping and great putting to win the Open,” Fillian said. “It certainly is a golf course that brings the entire field into play.”
Remarkably, this year marks the first time since Peter O’Hara of Shackamaxon won the inaugural Open Championship back in 1921 that the event will be played at Knickerbocker; and the atmosphere around the club is one of great anticipation.
“I’d have a hard time a finding a membership as excited to host the State Open Championship as ours at Knickerbocker, especially considering that we’ve not hosted the event here since the first one in 1921,” said head PGA professional Bill Hook, now in his 10th year at the Tenafly club. “We are thrilled that it will be played on our historic course.”
Designed by Donald Ross and Herbert Strong, Knickerbocker is known for its narrow fairways and very challenging green complexes. There will be a premium on course management and precise ball striking – and care on the greens will be of paramount importance. While not overly long by modern standards, the course can stretch to over 6,700 yards at a par of 72.
“Knickerbocker is not a bomber’s golf course, although typically it plays longer than its yardage. If the greens are firm, there will be a big emphasis on being in the fairway,” Hook said. “Knickerbocker is more of a shot-maker’s golf course than a big hitter’s golf course.”
The course record of 64 is held by two former Knickerbocker head pros, Ed Whitman and Otto Greiner. Whitman, one of only three four-time Open champions, has a great appreciation for the significance of the centennial NJSGA Open at Knickerbocker.
“If you know golf history, and see the names on the Badenhausen Trophy, you go ‘Wow!’ There are so many great golfers and national figures who have accomplished so much and have also won the State Open. It’s incredible to think of 100 years of the Open and all the history in our state,” said Whitman, who was the head golf professional at Knickerbocker from 1984-2010. Some of the names Whitman refers to include World Golf Hall of Famers Byron Nelson, Paul Runyan, Craig Wood and Jim Barnes – as well as two other four-time winners of the New Jersey Open, David Glenz and the late Babe Lichardus.
Whitman echoed his successor Hook’s sentiments about Knickerbocker hosting: “Everyone here is very excited. Hosting the Centennial Open is very much a matter of pride. The club has always loved hosting events. Each member of the club and our entire staff, led by president Jack Chimento and golf course superintendent Sam Juliano, have been closely involved in organizing the event. It’s been great to connect with the NJSGA for the 100th Open Championship,” said Whitman, who will be playing in his record 46th consecutive Open.
For the NJSGA, the staging of its flagship championship at Knickerbocker is a perfect match and a great opportunity for the association and players alike. Eric Houseknecht, the president of the NJSGA, has found Knickerbocker to be a most hospitable partner.
“The membership of Knickerbocker has been extremely enthusiastic about hosting the championship, and we are very grateful to them for allowing us to return to the site of the original open. The members could not have been more welcoming; they’ve helped us to make it a very special occasion. Plus, the recent changes to the golf course have restored many of the original Donald Ross holes to their original glory, which only adds to the aura of the event,” Houseknecht stated.
Being able to stage the 100th Open Championship in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic is a triumph in and of itself.
“It is particularly satisfying given that just a few months ago we were not even sure that championship events such as the NJSGA Open would be allowed, or even that well supported, given the devastating impact from COVID-19 on the state and across the country,” said Walter Sartorius, co-chairman of the NJSGA Tournament Committee and member of the Board of Trustees.
“We are very grateful that our championship season is fully underway, and we had four very successful qualifiers in advance of the Open. And what a qualifying process it was, producing a very strong field for Knickerbocker Country Club,” he added.
The 100th Open Championship will take place over 54 holes, Monday – Wednesday, July 20-22. Full championship coverage, including starting times and groupings, a “fly-over” course video, a retrospective of the rich history of the Open, plus full social media coverage is available at NJSGA.org. Live, hole-by-hole scoring will also be available at NJSGA.org throughout the championship.
While spectators are not permitted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, please be sure to visit NJSGA.org and follow the NJSGA’s social media platforms: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for frequent updates, interviews, video, and all things surrounding the 100th NJSGA Open Championship.