By Mike Dougherty
Those pesky unwritten rules come into play at the most inopportune times.
Max Christiana angered the Westchester Golf Association earlier this month when he conceded the organization’s 95th Amateur Championship to Jonathan Renza at Westchester Country Club. The 21-year-old was holding a 1-up lead through 18 holes when he informed tournament officials he was departing to play in the Anderson Memorial at Winged Foot.
It was the worst kind of awkward moment.
There is nothing in the vast rule book that covers a situation like this, but competitive golfers should not enter overlapping tournaments. And walking away from the Westchester Am midway through a 36-hole final, with a trophy in sight, to play a qualifying round at the Anderson showed a measure of disrespect.
There was a consequence.
Christiana was informed during the week by letter that he’s been suspended from all Westchester Golf Association events through next year’s Amateur Championship. The senior at Boston College must then hand-write a letter next June asking for reinstatement.
“He did not complete our tournament and left to play another tournament, so we felt a one-year suspension was warranted,” said WGA executive director Bob Thomas.
Christiana sent a letter of apology, but nine officers from the Westchester Golf Association voted unanimously to approve the suspension. The decision to walk away has been a topic of debate in locker rooms and grill rooms for three weeks.
“I’d like to keep it a private matter, if that’s OK,” Christiana said when reached by phone on Wednesday.
Let’s not make Christiana a villain. He undoubtedly sees the bigger picture now. And before he gets saddled with all of the blame, somebody needs to scrutinize the string of events that led up to the concession.
Christiana entered the Westchester Am shortly before a date for the Anderson Memorial was publicized. He could’ve withdrawn before the opening match and gotten his entry fee back. Instead Christiana teed off, thinking he was a long shot to make the final, but he kept winning. In the end, a promise to Max Buckley was kept. Christiana vowed he would be on the first tee when the Westchester Country Club duo started their defense of the Anderson title at Winged Foot.
Frankly, it’s a more prestigious event. The four-ball invitational is unique, and it boasts a more experienced field that comes from across the globe to play the club’s historic courses.
Three other players entered both tournaments, and none of them are facing a ban.
When the Amateur Championship got under way on June 6, heavy rain was falling without pause. The pins were set appropriately on high spots, but the fairways were eventually saturated. Play at the Anderson was suspended for nearly two hours when the rain kept falling. Christiana and Renza played on at Westchester. Both lost shots because of the conditions, but they were instructed to keep going.
The final should have been halted for a time. It was a championship match, and the players deserved an opportunity to play in tolerable conditions regardless of the elephant in the room.
Christiana told officials from the WGA on Wednesday evening that he was planning to concede the final due to the conflict, and the organization had an opportunity to make its tournament a proper spectacle.
Why not ask to come back on a future weekend to finish?
I get that you cannot make a habit of adjusting tournament schedules on the fly to accommodate an individual, but the members at Westchester Country Club appreciate talent and have always been gracious hosts. Maybe some of them would’ve strolled the fairways with Christiana and Renza.
Right now, the WGA needs exposure and might have generated a healthy buzz with an improved atmosphere. There were exactly three spectators on the course for most of the final, and the end result was unwanted controversy.
“I was ready to play, but if they had come up with something like that beforehand and it worked for me, that would’ve been cool,” Renza said last week after finishing tied for 13th at the Ike. “I wanted to play a full match.”
There is a pecking order when it comes to local tournaments and invitationals. And while the Westchester Am has an impressive history, the fields in recent years have not been particularly deep. It’s never easy to break from tradition, but it’s probably time for that proverbial look in the mirror.
Pushing the qualifying dates back and moving away from the first week in June could entice more high school and college players. How something like that sits with the more influential mid-am competitors remains to be seen. Thomas acknowledged the WGA is already checking to see when the Anderson is going to be played next spring, because this year’s conflict did prevent a number of players from signing up for the 95th Amateur Championship.
Let’s hope that Christiana isn’t the only person who learned a lesson here.