By Don Jozwiak, Senior Editor, PGA Magazine
At a site where legendary figures in American business and golf have intersected, PGA Professional Mike Small has a chance to make history of his own. While the 2011 PGA Professional National Championship reunites The PGA of America and Hershey (Pa.) Country Club, Small comes to "The Sweetest Place on Earth" as the two-time defending National Champion -- with a chance to become the first four-time winner of the PGA Professional National Championship.
Presented by Club Car and Mercedes-Benz, the PGA National Championship also boasts supporting sponsors Titleist/FootJoy, Calla way Golf, Nike Golf and TaylorMade-adidas Golf.
Whether it is Small or another competitor from the 312-player field who raises the Walter Hagen Cup at the end of the event, that PGA Professional will be the first person to win a PGA of America event at Hershey Country Club since Byron Nelson hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the 1940 PGA Championship on the facility's West Course. That victory, a 1-up win over Sam Snead, came at a facility where Ben Hogan and Henry Picard famously served as PGA Professionals.
The 44th PGA Professional National Championship, set for June 26–29 on Hershey Country Club's East and West Courses, provides other historic opportunities for its competitors from across The PGA's 41 Sections. In addition to the Champion receiving $75,000, the honor of having his name engraved on the Walter Hagen Cup and exemptions into six PGA Tour events over the next 12 months, the top 20 finishers will earn a spot in the 2011 PGA Championship, set for Aug. 11–14 at Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga. Meanwhile, the National Championship will also determine eight of the 10 PGA Professionals who will comprise Captain Jim Remy's U.S. Team for the PGA Cup, set for Sept. 16–18 at CordeValle in San Martin, Calif.
Those are pretty sweet rewards for winning or placing in the PGA Professional National Championship in a town and at a golf facility created by the legendary Milton S. Hershey, who built them both around his namesake chocolate empire. Hershey Country Club is now part of the Hershey Golf Collection, a 63-hole golf destination, while the town of Hershey is an international tourist attraction with a theme park, historical museum and the famed Hershey chocolate factory. The central Pennsylvania community is excited to host the state's first PGA Professional National Championship.
"It's my hope that competitors will be as impressed by our entire destination as they are with our golf facilities," says Ted J. Kleisner, CEO of Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Company. "We have such a unique destination here -- comprised of beautiful hotels, one of the top theme parks in the nation, the world-famous 'Chocolate Spa,' and a variety of cultural gifts left to us by Mr. Hershey himself. "I am very pleased that this event is so welcoming of the families of the PGA Professionals, as family is at the core of what this town is all about -- and has been since the beginning. I look forward to welcoming them and hope to see them back in the future. I think they'll quickly understand why we're called 'The Sweetest Place on Earth.'"
A Town Built on Chocolate
Hershey hasn't always been a golf hotbed -- in fact, it wasn't even a town until the early 1900s. That's when Milton S. Hershey's ambitious dreams to build a business on milk chocolate confections led him to construct a factory -- and surrounding town for its employees -- near his hometown of Derry Church, Pa. According to the Hershey Community Archives, Hershey was born in 1857, and his family moved often -- causing him to cease attending school in the fourth grade. As a young adult, Hershey undertook a four-year apprenticeship with a candy maker in Lancaster, Pa., then started his own candy business in Philadelphia. The business failed, as did subsequent attempts in Chicago and New York. But a fourth try, based in Lancaster, was a resounding success. Hershey started the Lancaster Caramel Company in 1883, though it turned out to be only a precursor to larger successes.
Hershey visited the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and became interested in milk chocolate, which was an expensive European luxury item. He bought German chocolate-making equipment for his plant in Lancaster and began selling a variety of chocolate goods. By 1900, he decided to focus exclusively on chocolate, and sold the Lancaster Caramel Company for $1 million. Hershey began working on a formula to mass-produce milk chocolate for American consumers, and created his own through a process of trial and error. In 1903, the construction of the Hershey milk chocolate plant started in Derry Church -- the perfect location for the large amounts of dairy milk the facility would require. The plant was up and running in 1905, and Hershey's milk chocolate became the first nationally marketed milk chocolate in the U.S.
Like other industrialists of the early 1900s, Hershey constructed a town around his flourishing -- and ever-expanding -- chocolate factory. Bound by a sense of moral responsibility and benevolence, he created a model town that included comfortable homes, inexpensive public transport, quality schools, and extensive recreational and cultural activities. The town had tree-lined streets, brick houses and parks, unlike other faceless company towns. Hershey's first park opened in 1907, and quickly grew to include amusement rides, a swimming pool and a ballroom.
The following year, golf became part of the Hershey lifestyle.
"Golf is a significant part of the Hershey town story, almost from the beginning," says Pam Whitenack, director of the Hershey Community Archives. "The first course was a nine-hole course built adjacent to the chocolate factory in 1908–09. As the factory kept growing, the golf course kept shrinking, and by 1920 it was down to five holes."
Prior to the Great Depression, Hershey embarked on what he called his "Great Building Campaign" to provide jobs for residents in nearby towns. Part of the effort included replacing the town's original golf course, and Maurice McCarthy was hired in 1928 to design a pair of courses. The first opened in 1929 and was called the Park Course, but it was the 1930 opening of the course called Hershey Country Club, which today is the West Course, that established the town as a significant golf location. Hershey donated his High Point mansion for use as a clubhouse, and it served that purpose until 1970.
Competitive golf was important to Hershey, but he also found a way to use golf as a tool for altruism. Two years after Hershey Country Club opened, a nine-hole course called Juvenile Country Club was built to give the town's children a place to learn and play the game. This may have been one of the country's first junior golf facilities, and adults had to be accompanied by a junior under the age of 18 to play the course. Today the course is called Spring Creek, and it still caters to families and juniors. Resort guests can participate in Golf Fore Family, a package that allows a family of four to play nine holes with a snack, drink, golf balls and rental clubs for the whole family, and many of Hershey Golf Collection's junior programs are run at Spring Creek.
Milton S. Hershey died in 1945 at age 88, but his legacy and town live on today. The town now includes a theme park with 11 roller coasters called Hersheypark, the award-winning Hershey Gardens, Hershey's Chocolate World, The Hershey Story museum, Hershey Bears AHL hockey and ZooAmerica. As a resort, Hershey Golf Collection and Hershey Country Club offer 63 holes of golf and the Chocolate Spa, along with the Hotel Hershey and Hershey Lodge.
One of Hershey's most enduring legacies is the Milton S. Hershey School, established in 1909 with his wife, Catherine. The couple couldn't have children, so they focused on helping children in need. Catherine Hershey died in 1915, and three years later Milton S. Hershey endowed the school with his entire fortune of Hershey Chocolate Company Stock. Today, more than 1,100 financially needy boys and girls in grades K–12 live at and attend the school, and have their college tuition paid after finishing high school. The schoolchildren have full access to Spring Creek, and golf is part of the life skills curriculum taught to the students.
"Mr. Hershey saw this as a way to help children become great citizens," says Ned Graff, the PGA director of golf at Hershey Country Club. "The kids live in homes with house parents so they get a nuclear family experience. It's a different dynamic from what you expect out of corporate America."
Bringing Golf Legends Together
Milton S. Hershey and
his wife, Catherine.
In addition to his altruism, Milton S. Hershey was known for his love of competition, and he wanted the country club that bore his name to earn its place among the country's top clubs. A mark of prestige in the 1920s and '30s was attracting a top touring professional to be the club's golf professional, and Hershey Country Club hired Henry Picard -- one of the game's top players -- shortly after it opened. Picard immediately added a winning touch to Hershey, winning many of his 26 professional titles during his 11 years as the club's head professional. Those wins included a pair of majors -- the 1938 Masters Tournament and the 1939 PGA Championship at Pomonok Country Club in Flushing, N.Y. -- as well as the 1936–37 Hershey Opens.
Picard was the Hershey Country Club head professional when the club hosted the 1940 PGA Championship, and he competed in the event, losing to Gene Sarazen in a 36-hole quarterfinal match-up. The winner was young Byron Nelson, five years shy of his historic streak of 11 consecutive victories, who outlasted Sam Snead for a 1-up victory on what is now Hershey Country Club's West Course.
The following year, Picard was advised to move south to aid his failing health. He suggested that Hershey hire Ben Hogan as his replacement. Hogan was just becoming a powerhouse on the tour, and knew both Picard and Hershey Country Club well -- thanks to a famous and fortuitous match played there in 1938.
Hogan was out of money and ready to quit tournament golf when Picard surprised Hogan by inviting him to play in the Hershey Round Robin Four Ball, a weeklong event in September of 1938. Eight two-man teams of top touring professionals played to split a first prize of $2,000, which was a large payday at the time. Hogan was to play with Tommy Armour, but the legendary Scot withdrew at the last moment. Hogan instead was paired with then-unknown Vic Ghezzi, and the pair was given little chance of winning.
Hogan and Ghezzi blew the field away, finishing 53 strokes under par for their 126 holes -- including 31 birdies by Hogan -- and beating Snead and Paul Runyan in the final. Ghezzi went on to win the 1941 PGA Championship at Denver's Cherry Hills. Hogan considered his Hershey triumph the turning point of his career, and also credited Picard with helping eliminate the hooks that nearly drove him from the game. When Hershey asked Hogan to replace Picard in 1941, he quickly accepted. Hogan went on to win 52 of his 63 tour titles, including six of his nine majors, while representing Hershey, including the 1946 and 1948 PGA Champion ships.
Hogan served as Hershey's head professional through 1951, and professional and competitive golf have continued to be a vital part of Hershey Country Club. The club was the site of the LPGA Keystone Open from 1978 to 1994, and was also the host of the Nationwide Tour's Reese's Cup Classic from 1997 to 2004. In recent years, the club has hosted high-profile amateur events, such as the 2010 NCAA Division III Men's Golf Championship, and is scheduled to host the 2012 USGA Senior Women's Amateur Championship next September.
Preparing for the National Championship
Now Hershey Country Club is fully prepared for a return to The PGA spotlight. The East and West Courses are in top shape, despite the wettest spring since the club started keeping records. The West Course maintains the classic parkland design laid out in 1928 by Maurice McCarthy. As Graff puts it, "The West Course is old school; it has doglegs you can't hit over or through, so you can't just smash driver all day."
Meanwhile, the East Course is a more modern design by George Fazio that opened in 1969 and challenges players with more length and an assortment of blind, uphill approach shots. "The East Course was built for championship golf," Graff says. "It was a good fit for the Nationwide Tour, and I think our PGA Professional guests will really enjoy the challenge."
Because of their background as tournament courses, neither the East nor West Course needed extensive renovations to host the PGA Professional Nation al Championship. Some tree-trimming was done on the East Course to open sightlines from the championship tees, and a new practice green was added near the 10th tee on the West Course to accommodate players starting their round there. The practice facility that serves both courses was also expanded, doubling the amount of teeing ground and adding a 9,500-square-foot practice green for putting, chipping and pitching.
"Having the NCAA Division III Men's Golf Championship last year was a good warm-up for the PGA Professional National Championship," Graff says. "It gave us a chance to evaluate things, including spectator flow on the course, traffic and parking, and other behind-the-scenes elements."
The gravity of hosting the PGA Professional National Championship is sinking in with Graff and his fellow PGA Professionals at Hershey. It really hit home when the Walter Hagen Cup arrived in the golf shop. Graff put it next to the replica of the Wanamaker Trophy from Nelson's 1940 PGA Championship victory and gathered the staff to take in the moment.
"We're really trying to connect with the feel and history of the PGA Championship and everything it means to Hershey, and tie that in to the PGA Professional National Championship," Graff says.
"Mr. Hershey hired two of the game's finest players of their time -- Henry Picard and Ben Hogan -- to represent Hershey and offer their expertise to players here," adds Hershey's Kleisner. "He even gave over the majority of his home, High Point, to serve as the course clubhouse, which it did for decades. He admired the etiquette and discipline of the game, whose Rules mirrored many of his personal and business philosophies. So I think having a PGA member championship in Hershey is a way of honoring not only the sport and its players, but also of connecting to the legacy of Mr. Hershey."
Nelson. Hogan. Picard. Ghezzi. Another PGA Professional will join these names in Hershey golf history this month -- and what could be sweeter than that?