HERSHEY, Pa. -- This south central Pennsylvania community of 15,000 returns to the national golf spotlight this weekend, making "the Sweetest Place on Earth" all the more inviting for 312 PGA Professionals in their quest for a 17 1/2-pound crystal cup bearing the name of Walter Hagen, a player whose mission was to elevate his profession.
A field representing 44 states and 41 PGA Sections will attempt to follow Hagen's cue as the 44th PGA Professional National Championship presented by Club Car and Mercedes-Benz debuts at Hershey Country Club, June 26-29.
Making its first appearance in Pennsylvania, the showcase event for PGA Professionals will be conducted on Hershey's adjoining East and West Courses, a complex that offers the classic architectural design of the early 20th century and yet has retained the demands required by today's premier championships.
Fifteen members of the host Philadelphia PGA Section, which last produced a National Champion with Ed Dougherty in 1985, are among the title hopefuls. Heading the local contingent is Mark Sheftic of Blue Bell, Pa., 36, a PGA teaching professional at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., who tied for second in 2009 and was third a year ago.
"I played junior golf at Hershey and love the golf courses there," said Sheftic. "It's a family-friendly atmosphere and I have been approached by a lot of people at my club saying that this should be my year. I have to approach this Championship like I have the previous two – without any expectations. It will be great for Pennsylvania golf, for Philadelphia PGA Professionals to play well and hopefully we can crown a Champion from our Section.
"I also know that it's a four-day marathon and there are so many great players. What Mike Small has done is truly special in this Championship. I had one goal in mind when I played in New Mexico two years ago and last year in Indiana: play one hole at a time. If I can do that, I feel I won't get ahead of myself and look at the shot in front of me as the most important for the moment."
Small, a three-time National Champion from Champaign, Ill., captured the past two titles while coming off coaching the University of Illinois men's golf team to a Big Ten Championship.
The 45-year-old coach is still on a roll. He guided the Fighting Illini to their third consecutive Big Ten Conference title this spring, along with a runner-up in the Regional Championship and a share of fifth place in the NCAA Championship, the school's best showing since 1941.
"I have not changed my routine from previous years, and my job, family and then golf are the order of priorities throughout the year," said Small. In 1997, Small made his professional debut at Hershey Country Club on the former Nike Tour. He had won the Nike Cleveland Open two weeks earlier, but missed the cut at the Nike Hershey Open.
When Small visited in May during the National Championship Media Day, he was able to reacquaint himself with the East Course and take his first tour of the West Course.
"My first goal in a National Championship is to make the top 20, which will earn a spot in the PGA Championship," said Small, who also triumphed in 2005 and 2009. "That is what all PGA Professionals are thinking from the start when they enter. It is a great reward, and this National Championship has truly been our Association's Super Bowl, Masters and U.S. Open."
Small is joined at Hershey by 10 other past National Champions: John Traub, Oakland Township, Mich. (1980); Steve Schneiter, Saratoga Springs, Utah (1995); Darrell Kestner, Glen Cove, N.Y. (1996); Jeff Freeman, Windermere, Fla. (1999); Wayne DeFrancesco, Columbia, Md. (2001); Barry Evans, Charleston, W.Va. (2002); Bob Sowards, Dublin, Ohio (2004); Ron Philo Jr., Amelia Island, Fla. (2006); Chip Sullivan, Troutville, Va. (2007); and Scott Hebert, Traverse City, Mich. (2008).
The first two rounds of the National Championship will be conducted on the par-72, 6,750-yard West Course designed by Maurice McCarthy in 1930, and the par-71, 7,102-yard East Course, which was crafted by George Fazio and opened for play in 1969. The final two rounds will be conducted on the East Course, the site of the 1940 PGA Championship won by Byron Nelson and home (1997-2004) of the former Reese's Cup Classic of the Nationwide Tour.
"We hope that we can provide a unique experience for all participants and that Hershey offers a lot for everyone," said Hershey Country Club Director of Golf Ned Graff. "What makes the courses special for all of us is that very little has been done to change them over the years. The East has not had any renovations since it opened and five greens were rebuilt on the West Course in the 1980s. That is it. One coach at the 2010 NCAA Division III Championship commented how at other sites you never get the feel for a championship. But, here you have it all right in front of you. You get all the buzz at one time."
Graff also said that Hershey's location within hours of several major cities (Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.) has helped players in another area.
"We've found that most of the players will bring their own caddie," said Graff. "We are now planning for 82 assigned caddies out of 312. That is pretty special."
The perks for the Championship field are many, including the low 20 scorers advancing to the 93rd PGA Championship, Aug. 11-14, at Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga. In addition, eight of the 10 members of the United States PGA Cup Team that will face Great Britain & Ireland, Sept. 16-18, at CordeValle in San Martin, Calif., will be determined at Hershey Country Club. The remaining two players for the U.S. Team, the result of a two-year points system, will be determined after the PGA Championship.
The PGA Professional National Championship features a total purse of $550,000, and is supported by Titleist/FootJoy, Callaway Golf, Nike Golf, TaylorMade-adidas golf/Ashworth and the PGA Tour.
Established in 1968, The PGA Professional National Championship roster of Champions includes past and present Tour professionals: Sam Snead, Bob Rosburg, Don Massengale, Ed Dougherty, Larry Gilbert and Bruce Fleisher.
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