‘Rat’ takes pride in tour­ney’s growth

The Morning Call - - SPORTS - By Mark Wo­gen­rich

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.”

MARK WO­GEN­RICH/MORN­ING CALL

Nick­named “Rat” as a player, John Kul­hamer has been the head pro at Green Pond Coun­try Club since 1994.

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