Sunnehanna Amateur attracts top field

The 61st rendition of the prestigious Sunnehanna Amateur, contested in Johnstown begins next Wednesday.

The tournament is one of the premier amateur events in the country, attracting many of the top-ranked amateur golfers in the world.

The history of Sunnehanna Country Club dates back to 1923, when the course was laid out by world-renowned golf course architect A.W. Tillinghast. By 1931, club members had organized an impressive tournament for local amateurs – the Sunnehanna Invitational.

This early tournament was played as a match play competition and grew in popularity, until 1951, when club members grew wary of gambling implications associated with the auctioning of tournament contestants in the event’s annual ‘calcutta’.

For a few years the club discontinued the event, but by 1954, the tournament was resurrected with a new format – and a new name: the Sunnehanna Amateur Tournament of Champions. The new format would be 72 holes of stroke play, similar to regular PGA Tour events.

From this new beginning, leading amateur golfers from across the country – and around the world – were invited to play. Early entries to the tournament included future stars Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

As the tournament grew in reputation, it remained unique as the only top-notch national event conducted independently by a private club. Over the years, The Sunnehanna Amateur has remained a world-class amateur event because of the hard work and determination of its members, who work tirelessly to make this event a success each year.

Through the years, many future PGA stars – like Ben Crenshaw, Fred Couples and Davis Love III – competed here before they turned professional and became well-known athletes. More recently, the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler have also competed.

Current tournament co-chairmen Denver Wharton and Brian Chirillo expect this year’s field will be as strong as ever.

“We’ll have about 90 golfers in our field this year, including seven of the top 11 junior golfers in the country,” Wharton said. “We also have a strong international contingent, with golfers from six different countries competing.”

Each year, the members of Sunnehanna Country Club do everything they can to ensure the course is in top condition during tournament week. In addition, long-range planning is done to ensure that the course is one of the finest in the country.

Several years ago, work began to re-design many of the club’s putting surfaces.

In addition, over the past year a major project involving significant tree removal was undertaken.

“We’ve removed hundreds of trees on the course,” co-chairman Brian Chirillo said. “It has made several of our holes more playable and has improved the sight-lines on these holes. For example, the 12th and 18th holes have been drastically improved by the work that has been done.”

Another change to this year’s event will be a slight shift in scheduling – the event will begin on Wednesday this year, instead of Thursday, allowing for a Saturday finish.

It will continue, however, as a four day event showcasing the best amateur golfing talent in the world. Last year, the Sunnehanna Amateur was ranked as the 13th highest-rated amateur event in the world.

Attending this nearby event – which is free to the public – offers the opportunity for local golf fans to see top-notch tournament play by young amateur golfers who will undoubtedly become tomorrow’s PGA superstars. It was only a few years ago that rising PGA star Rickie Fowler won back-to-back Sunnehanna Amateurs (2007-08). Amazingly, 20-year old, PGA tour winner Jordan Speith was playing in this tournament just two years ago.