‘Rat’ takes pride in tourney’s growth
John Kulhamer’s first Lehigh Valley Amateur golf tournament nearly was his last.
Kulhamer was the firstyear head pro at Green Pond Country Club in 1994, when the course was beaten dry by a hot summer, and then a tournament-week downpour battered the pro shop’s leaky ceiling. As the rain peeled scores, attached via wax paper, from the clubhouse walls, Kulhamer wondered whether he even should be running this tournament.
And now …
“This is too much fun,” he told a crowd of 120 members of his golf family Wednesday night. “Are you kidding me? I’m not leaving until you kick me out.”
The 83rd Lehigh Valley Amateur begins its nine-day golf festival Saturday at Green Pond, where it has been held since 1934. The event has been a fixture on the local golf calendar for decades, though its biggest fans say Kulhamer transformed it from tournament to event.
Once a four-day tournament, in which competitors played cards as much as they did golf, the Lehigh Valley Amateur now runs similarly to its model: the United States Amateur. This year, 360 players will compete over three days of qualifying, with the top 64 advancing to match play of the championship flight.
They will be introduced at the first tee (by Kulhamer’s wife Nicolina), get TV time during Service Electric’s coverage and congregate under a hospitality tent where pizza and beer flow freely. During Saturday’s match-play schedule, there’s a pig roast.
The Lehigh Valley Amateur has become the region’s golf version of Musikfest. Players use vacation weeks to play. Some even travel from other states to compete.
Rich Kovacs, a Green Pond member, is playing in his 48th Lehigh Valley Amateur. It’s his favorite week of the year.
“I don’t think there’s a bigger golf party, or golf tournament, than this in the whole state of Pennsylvania,” Kovacs said. “This is no longer a golf tournament. It’s golf nirvana.”
The Lehigh Valley Amateur kicked off the festivities Wednesday with a tribute to Kulhamer, who is celebrating 25 years at Green Pond Country Club. Kulhamer was presented with the Lehigh Valley Service to Golf award to recognize his contributions to area golf, notably the Amateur. The award will be presented annually before the tournament.
Kulhamer, 65, graduated from Whitehall High School and Kutztown University to a life of golf. He played professionally on the Florida minitours in the late 1970s, took his first golf-professional job in Atlantic City in 1980 and won the 1981 Shawnee Open.
As a player, Kulhamer was known for his often frustrating (to competitors) knack for making par from anywhere. Once, after shooting 70, a friend said, “But you were all over the place. You hit it like a rat.”
And a nickname was born. “It stuck, and I love it,” Kulhamer said of his nickname ‘Rat.’ “I could get it up and down [for par] from the ball washer.”
After stints as head pro at two Pennsylvania courses, Kulhamer took over at Green Pond in 1994. Two projects he tackled quickly were course conditions and the Lehigh Valley Amateur.
Before Green Pond had irrigation, Kulhamer said, tee shots routinely rolled under trees, and greens were difficult to hold. “It was miserable, really,” Kulhamer said.
As for the tournament, it always drew the area’s top players but had trouble generating crowds. A total of 96 players competed in 1994. Often, fields were smaller.
Kulhamer received an offer to relocate the Lehigh Valley Amateur but wanted a year to revive it at Green Pond. He brought some order, with scheduled foursomes and tee times. He added divisions, which now include two for juniors, the Super Senior and the Legends.
Over the years, Kulhamer brought in sponsors (who have their own midweek tournament), a Better Ball outing and the hospitality tent. Tournament fields now routinely top 400 players.
“It was a good tournament. He made it great,” said Mike Zambelli, sports director of Service Electric 2 Sports and 1978 Amateur champ. “He added the final touches to the legitimacy of the golf course and the tournament.”
Kovacs already was a Lehigh Valley Amateur fan when Kulhamer arrived. He has played in the event annually since 1972 and, in 1977, took leave from a job assignment in Montana to return to play.
In those days, Kovacs said, the tournament was a loose affair. Players formed their own groups for two days of qualifying. If they didn’t qualify Wednesday, they tried again Thursday.
Then they played cards until 5 a.m., slumbered through a Friday practice round and played the weekend tournament.
When he tees up now, Kovacs still can’t believe how large the production has grown.
“John brings the competitive golfing community together for one week a year,” Kovacs said. “It always was the best tournament on the calendar. Now it’s an event.”
After qualifying and the midweek tournaments, the Lehigh Valley Amateur gets serious at 7 a.m. Thursday, when match play begins. The finals will be held Sunday, and defending champ Jason Wilson wants to be there again.
Wilson has crafted a statewide golf resume the past few years, winning the Pennsylvania Mid-Amateur in 2017 and his first Lehigh Valley Amateur last year. This event remains at the top of his schedule.
“There was a time I didn’t pay attention to the Amateur, because I didn’t know John,” Wilson said. “Once I started playing [at Green Pond] more and getting to know John, then it became very personal. It became part of me. It became the tournament you want to play and the tournament you want to win.”
Nicknamed “Rat” as a player, John Kulhamer has been the head pro at Green Pond Country Club since 1994.