Blairmont Invitational still remembered fondly

During this time of year, a half-century ago, most area golfers would be spending every chance they had preparing for the area’s biggest tournament – an event so popular it drew golfers from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and many neighboring states.

The tournament was known as the Blairmont Invitational, and for more than 40 years it reigned as central Pennsylvania’s premier golf event.

Hollidaysburg’s Blairmont Country Club (now known as Sylvan Hills) opened for business in 1923. The golf course quickly became known as the area’s best, outdistancing the county’s two other facilities – the Altoona Cricket Club and Tyrone Golf Club.

By 1932, Blairmont officials decided to stage an annual tournament open to members and non-members alike. One of the club’s founding members, Dr. Fred Miller, took the lead and was the driving force in organizing what would become the first Blairmont Invitational. The club did a fine job promoting the event, and by mid-summer nearly 100 golfers had registered for the tournament.

Format for the tournament was set at match play – with flights consisting of 16 golfers each. An 18-hole qualifying round was scheduled prior to the tournament for seeding purposes, while the actual tournament would consist of two matches per day over consecutive days for every golfer who advanced. Tournament festivities included dinner, dancing and entertainment each evening in the luxurious Blairmont dining room. The entire weekend soon became ‘the’ social event of the year.

The inaugural event was won by R.W. Smith, of Greensburg, in a close match over Blairmont member Tom Norton. Norton would avenge the loss by capturing his own title the next year. By the third year, the event became so popular a “waiting list” was formed. In 1934, Oakmont member Wilson Marks traveled 90 miles east to capture the title. When he repeated again in 1935 – the event was gaining state-wide notoriety.

Through the next decade, the “Invitational” continued to thrive. To accommodate larger fields, the tournament committee worked with local courses to utilize their facilities. John Seasoltz, now 86 years old, began playing the event in the early 1950s and has many fond memories.

“I usually played in the middle flights,” Seasoltz said. “We would play our early rounds at the Summit or at Park Hills. The rest of our rounds would all be played back at Blairmont. I really looked forward to playing the tournament each year – it was the best event around.”

Through the 1950s, some of the finest golfers in Pennsylvania played, and won, the Blairmont Invitational – including George Mackanos Jr. of Pittsburgh and nationally-ranked amateur Charles Kunkle Jr., of Johnstown. Local golfing greats also copped the title. Blairmont members Don Moran and Dr. ‘Skip’ Hughes, Bedford’s Gordon Stroup and Gallitzin’s Johnny Felus. During these years, a young Hollidaysburg native, Scott Stultz, would follow the matches, looking forward to the day when he could play himself.

“When I was growing up, the Invitational was the biggest event around,” Stultz said. “I remember one year following Gordon Stroup in the finals. I was amazed by how good he was.”

Within a few years, Stultz was old enough – and good enough – himself to enter the event. In 1957, the young Penn State student played extremely well – finishing as runner-up. Over the next decade, Stultz went on to amass the best record in tournament history. He would capture the title three years in a row – from 1960 thru 1962 – and again in 1965. His four victories and three runner-up finishes remain unequaled. During this time, the event was as popular as ever.

“I remember the tournament having at least 12 flights, with golfers coming from all over – even out of state,” Stultz said. “They gave out some of the best prizes too – Waterford crystal and pro-style golf bags made from kangaroo leather.”

The tournament remained extremely popular through the late 1960s, but change was coming. At that time, nearly every local course had expanded to 18 holes, and Blairmont Country Club was looking to do the same. Unfortunately, attempts to acquire enough adjacent land were unsuccessful, and Blairmont members set out to build a new, 18-hole course – that would become Blairmont Scotch Valley.

With all the efforts of building this new course, the Blairmont Invitational sputtered. It would soon cease to exist. This grand tournament, which had become the high-point of the local golf scene, was no more. An effort to revive the old classic was made in the early 1980s, but after a couple of years, with small fields, the tournament faded away for good, replaced in our area by a line-up of best-ball events today that are hosted by nearly every local club.

None of these tournaments, however, are as popular as the old Blairmont Invitational was. For nearly a half century, the ‘Invitational’ was ‘the’ event in central Pennsylvania. It was the tournament every local golfer dreamed of winning.