E.A. Sports Today

Tough one to top

Most agree topping last year’s Sunny King Charity Classic finish will be difficult, but the deepest field in tournament history will try

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

Brett Key has no doubt about two things that have taken place on his watch as Sunny King Charity Classic chairman. No one will match the mind-numbing, record-shattering score Jacob Harper and Jacob LeCroy posted in 2019 and the way last year’s Classic ended will never happen again. 

Last year’s Classic finish was one for the ages and definitely fun while it lasted. Two of the most prolific teams in tournament history staged a September shootout, charging up the hill on Anniston Country Club’s iconic 16th hole six times well into the night before Ott Chandler and his son Dalton finally emerged triumphant.

It was exhilarating for the winners, disappointing for the losers and entertaining for everyone. There’s no way you could have scripted the first September Sunny King any better. What the tournament does for an encore when this year’s Classic tees off Friday is anybody’s guess, but it will be hard-pressed to come up with something better.

“I’ve told you this before: This tournament surprises me every year,” Key said. “I can’t see how you top last year. The first move to September, you get a six-hole playoff on 16 at the Club, which I think out of every golf course that’s probably the best hole to accommodate a playoff from a player and spectator standpoint.

“I think the thing that made it so cool was the two teams that were in it. You’ve got four guys whose names are staples in Calhoun County golf playing against each other in front of a couple hundred people with car headlights on the green. I don’t know how you recreate that and I hope we don’t. But if I’m taking the stance of a pure spectator on Sunday, that’s exactly the way I want it to end.”

Hollywood did create it first in the closing scenes of “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and it was just like that last September. Ott Chandler made a 30-foot putt on the final hole of regulation to force extra points and then the Chandlers battled it out with Ty Cole and Gary Wigington the rest of the night until Dalton made a 15-foot birdie putt with phone flashlights on the tee and car headlights on the green.

“I think every time I play that hole for the rest of my life I’m going to remember that,” Ott Chandler said. “I was playing with Twig there the other day said this is your favorite hole, isn’t it? He just gave me this look. 

“That ending, in my opinion, I don’t think will ever be beat. I think it’ll take some more kind of fantastic finish to beat that finish right there.”

“It wasn’t a good ending (for us), but it was an experience you’ll always remember, that’s for sure,” Wigington said. “Somebody was going to birdie it at some point. I didn’t think it was going to go on all night. I figured it was going to end that night.”

While most of the players favor the move to September for the sake of more hospitable weather, the problem was less daylight available than the traditional July date, and that’s what caught them last year.

The longest playoff previously was two holes, but it was done in July where it doesn’t start to get dark until about the time last year’s playoff ended. There’s not much tournament officials can do about the earth’s rotation, but they have said they will be “a lot more prepared” from a lighting standpoint if needed.

“We can make lighting a little more cohesive this year,” Key said.

As strong as the field projects to be this year, they might need it.

The field is so strong, the cut off for the championship rotation (Silver Lakes, Cider Ridge, ACC) has been reduced two shots. It had been cut off at 10 handicaps before; this year’s 8 is the limit.

It is a strong field, but not one expected to reach the record 51-under-par posted by Harper and LeCroy or maybe not even the 40s that have become the modern-day standard. Part of the reason is a changeover in greens at Cider Ridge from the bentgrass it has offered since the day it opened to the new TifEagle Bermuda that is better for the course in the long run.

Experts believe the switch could change Cider Ridge’s scores by as many as five shots. The Chandlers set the tournament scamble format scoring record there last year at 18-under 54 and both players had 12-foot eagle putts that could have taken it deeper.

“Two years ago was an anomaly, I think,” Key said. “I don’t know anybody is going to beat those two guys. We got the 180 of it last year with the six-hole playoff and back to the competitive deal, which is what I want to see. I feel like we should be back there this year. We’ve got a bunch of strong teams, but I don’t know that there’s any one that when you look at it on paper you say it’s these guys.

“There are some new guys with low handicaps. I think we have a competitive field. I don’t want another playoff. I want it to be competitive, I want it to be close and although last year was great I’d also like them to finish on 18 this year.”

Interestingly, the defending champs almost didn’t get in. The tournament filled up so quickly — even faster than the year before — the Chandlers were shut out before they knew it and placed on the waiting list. After a few strategic phone calls they secured a spot and now will have a chance to become the first team to go back-to-back since Cole and Wigington’s three-year run from 2016 to 2018 when it took the Harper-LeCroy express to stop them.

“It would be … almost an injustice (for the defending champs to not get in),” Ott Chandler said. “Somebody probably needs to bring it up to the (tournament) board that if you’ve won the Classic before you ought to have first dibs on getting into it. Give them a week or 10 days (after opening registration) to say (you’re playing) if you’re a past champion.”

Now that they are safely in, if they do pull off the repat, it will be Ott’s seventh all-time Classic title and his third with Dalton, which made winning last year even more special to him than the circumstances that produced it.

“It’s hard to explain that because nobody’s ever done it, but to win it twice with your kid … until you’ve done it, you don’t know how it is,” Ott said. “Me and him have won two state championships together, but those don’t compare to winning the Sunny King. That, the Sunny King, to me, is by far our biggest tournament, hands down, and to have won two with your kid, that’s awesome.”

The hole-in-one prizes and drop zone novelties at ACC No. 2, Heartbreaker No. 7 and Cider Ridge No. 16 will be in play once again, but new this year is a Beat The Pro promotion at ACC No. 12 with Golf Club of Georgia lady pro Madison Barnett. Also new to the party lineup, Saturday’s social will take place outside at ACC’s 19th Hole with a tailgate theme.

Organizers already have randomly selected the players for the big-money shots at the conclusion of Sunday’s round. Eric Williams and Jim Ramey were picked for the $100,000 fairway shot, Jonathan Mosley for the million-dollar fairway shot and Cal Newman for the $25,000 putt. Williams and Mosley are teammates in the Honda Civic Sixth Flight, the first time that has happened in the history of the contest.

As usual, tournament officials are expecting to raise more than $100,000 for their charities.

On the cover, Ott and Dalton Chandler celebrate winning their second SKCC title together last year on the 16th green at Anniston CC after an historic playoff that went six holes.

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