Golf and LJ Go

Golf is difficult. Look at Tiger Woods. His knee is damaged, he’s world-ranked a lowly 49, his last title was 22 months ago and, at last month’s PGA Championships, he shot a 7-over 77. TW missed the cut.

LJ Go? He’s a cut above the rest. Spelled in full, his name is Lloyd Jefferson Go. You’d know he excels in one sport just by studying the initials of his name:

GO, LJ. G-O L-F. The two are nearly identical. It’s no coincidence that this 16-year-old Cebu Country Club (CCC) resident is one of the country’s most promising golfers.

Last Thursday, Atty. Jovi Neri chronicled LJ’s spectacular 2011 season. Many experts, including Jovi, the head of the CCC Jungolf Program and a former CCC champion, consider LJ “as the most talented junior to emerge from Cebu Country Club.” Possibly, ever. Among LJ’s records: two junior championships, twice shooting the junior competitive course record of 69, a men’s club championship top seeding, and twice top-scoring for the men’s PAL team.

Here’s more… Last summer, after a string of successful tournaments in the U.S., LJ returned to Cebu all-confident. In Club Filipino’s President’s Cup, he shot a 68 and went home to his parents, Charlie and Lily, carrying the trophy. Next, he led his team to the overall crown of the Cheling Garcia Memorial.

“LJ’s impressive performance in America earned him the attention of NGAP (National Golf Association of the Phils.) director Tommy Manotoc, a legendary sportsman in his own right,” said Jovi Neri. “Manotoc personally selected LJ to play for the Philippine Men’s Team in the Putra Cup when Marcel Puyat had to beg off as he was entering Stanford under a scholarship.”

The 51-year-old Putra Cup is the Southeast Asia Amateur Golf Team Championship. “LJ was a 16-year-old junior playing for the Men’s Team in an international team event,” said Jovi. “No one can remember the last time a Cebuano was in the men’s team, definitely not in the last two decades and not as young as him.”

LJ also joined the Taiwan Men’s Amateur and came within a stroke of being the best Filipino campaigner. The Putra Cup, which finished weeks ago in Hong Kong? “His third round 70 was the best by any Filipino and his total was 2nd best among eight Filipinos – men’s and juniors – who played the course from the same tees,” said Atty. Neri.

What’s amazing is this: He is a national-caliber virtuoso who has chosen to stay sa probinsya. “LJ’s teammates in the men’s team have all come from national training programs funded by ICTSI,” said Neri. “LJ has never moved to Manila. He trains on his own in Cebu. His enjoyment of his student life in Cebu is the reason why he never traded it for home-schooling or transferring to Manila for training. He is an inspiration to young provincial kids who want to excel without leaving home.”

LJ first swung a 7-iron at the age of 7. He started under the tutelage of Raul Sorino, one of the instructors of the CCC Jungolf Program, then moved to his longest-serving mentor, Victor Macutay. Today, his coach is Andrew Ong.

A high school senior in Centre for International Education (CIE), LJ aspires to be a U.S. collegiate scholar. Adds Jovi: “Outside of the golf course, he lives an ordinary student life. But in the course, he is anything but ordinary. His exponential rise over the past few months—from a talented club junior golfer to a men’s national team top scorer—is nothing short of remarkable.”

How remarkable? Here’s a story supplied by Jovi Neri: “Last Sunday, I joined LJ’s flight with Gen Nagai, Gio Gandionco and Liloan Mayor Duke Frasco. In the front nine, he was out of his element hitting tops and shanks to find water on three straight holes. He even had a four-putt green and shot an ugly 8-over par 44.

“LJ picked it up in the back nine with five birdies and one eagle. He finished eagle-birdie-birdie, and won the September Junior Monthly Medal by count back (tie-break). His score (6-under par 30) is the lowest in nine holes I have ever witnessed in my 20 years of playing CCC.”

LJ Go’s breakout year, by Jovi Neri

“Many have said that Lloyd Jefferson ‘LJ’ Go is the most talented junior ever to emerge from Cebu Country Club,” said Atty. Jovi Neri, one of the most avid of Cebuano golfers and himself a columnist in the Inquirer Golf magazine.

Atty. Neri wrote a full-length chronicle of LJ’s phenomenal 2011 season. Here’s the rest of Jovi’s story….

“LJ’s achievements were spectacular in the club level: two junior championships, twice shooting the junior competitive course record of 69, a men’s club championship top seeding, and twice top-scoring for the men’s PAL team.

“But his results in the national level were not reflective of his talent until this year, when he emerged not just among the top juniors but as one of the top men’s amateur golfers who can compete internationally.

“During the summer he took in a new coach, Andrew Ong. This gave him renewed motivation which he channeled into increased drive and work ethic. As changes take a while for results to come, all it took LJ was an incredible round one April afternoon.

“Plodding along in the middle of the field in the Junior World qualifier in Manila Southwoods, LJ came out of nowhere to shoot a spectacular final round 72 to jump five places and steal the final slot for the Junior World Championships in San Diego via sudden death over Gus Mata.

“The next week, LJ got his first champion trophy in Luzon with a nail-biting win in the Faldo Series Phils. Championship in Tat Filipinas Golf Club. He then headed to play the Phil. Junior Amateur – a major championship for juniors.

“Playing in Alabang Country Club, he scored two major upsets – starting with home-course hero Basti Lorenzo, then pre-tournament favorite Miggy Yee. In the semis, he faced Junior World Champion Rupert Zaragosa and was on the cusp of victory, 1-up with two holes to play, but lost. Zaragosa went on to win the championship.

“The following week in the Philippine Men’s Amateur Match Play, LJ did not play as he was preparing for his US trip. The eventually winner was Zaragosa but two of the semifinalists were Mata, whom he beat in Southwoods, and Yee, whom he upset in Alabang.

“Now it was off to America where LJ competed in the AJGA (American Junior Golf Association), regarded as the PGA Tour of junior golf. LJ flew to the USA with no assured slot in any AJGA event. He would have to play qualifying rounds where up to 75 golfers compete for 3 slots. He had to endure a 14-hour trip to Los Angeles followed by an 8-hour drive to Phoenix to play his first qualifying.

“Defying all the odds, fatigue, and jet lag, LJ teed it up in Moon Valley Golf Club – the course where Annika Sorenstam shot her historic 59 – and earned the last spot in the tournament via playoff. LJ shot rounds of 78-75-78 in his first AJGA tournament — respectable and good enough to win junior tournaments locally.  But there, he found himself tied for 55th — or 3rd to the last. It was a rude awakening.

“When he could have easily given up, LJ continued to grind it out and earned spots to more AJGA events. After Arizona, he played events in Nevada and California.

“In the Junior World Championships in San Diego, LJ opened with a 74 in Torrey Pines South, a course that hosted the ‘08 US Open, which was Tiger Woods’ last major win. It was the best score turned in by a Filipino all week and the best score by a Cebuano ever in that tough course.

“In PGA West Stadium – a course where Nicklaus and other golf superstars had competed in past Skins Games – LJ was the only one who played under par through two rounds and finished in the top 5.

“His final tournament – the Emerson Junior Classic – turned out to be his best. He closed with a 3-under par 69, the best score of the final round which earned him a special recognition. He finished 3rd place and earned enough points to jump 1000 places and move within earshot of being among the top 200 juniors in America – not bad considering he is a non-resident rookie playing limited events in his first season.”

Aboitiz Golf: The winner is Cebu Country Club

Yesterday was Bobby Aboitiz’s birthday. Instead of a text message, I was able to greet him in person, while walking and observing the land’s best golfers. In the tournament named after his family name, Bobby watched. So did his brother, Jon Ramon. Both strolled, clapped, moved aside when a Ping! sounded from the tee mound.

BAYRON. Last Tuesday, two days before the Aboitiz Invitational started, Atty. Jovi Neri approached many of the professionals and asked their prediction for the winning score. Some said 5-under-par. Others said 2-under. A few answered: 8-under. Only one person had the audacity to declare that the winning score would be 12-under.

His name: Jay Bayron. In the end, we know that Jay did not score anywhere near that number but, according to Atty. Neri, it proves the confidence of Mr. Bayron.

What confidence yesterday! He birdied four of the last six holes. At No. 16, after he sank a long putt for another birdie, he smiled a smile that beamed as wide as the fairway. “He’s in the groove,” said Bobby Aboitiz.

Wearing all black—pants, cap and shirt—compared to the pink trousers of Elmer Salvador and the bright blue striped T-shirt of Jonathan Moore (who was a former teammate of Rickie Fowler), there was nothing dark black about his game.

Reliving last year’s winning walk during the 2010 edition of the Aboitiz Invitational, he did the same yesterday. Teeing off at 8:20 a.m., as each hour passed and as every hole was scratched from his To-Do List, he chipped off the leader-board’s scores.

At exactly 12:40 p.m., surrounded by hundreds of CCC members, caddies, Aboitiz cap-wearing spectators, and one American (Moore) and a fellow Davaoeño (Salvador), he punched his final putt into the cup.

The crowd applauded. Handshakes ensued. Digital cameras were clicked. Jiggy Junior, whose Y101 voice reverberated from the loudspeakers, said: “He has done it again!”

Jay Bayron took off his black cap, bowed to the gallery at the CCC veranda, then smiled. Everyone smiled. Jay’s brother, Rufino, lifted his brother up on the air.

Then, the air sounded. Thunder roared. Dark, gray-black skies enveloped the greens. It was as if, by perfect timing, not only the crowds cheered—but the skies wanted to clap, too.

Finally, in a hard-to-believe moment, barely 10 minutes after Bayron’s winning putt, rained poured. There was no rain this entire week. The sun baked the visitors. Umbrellas were opened—not for water but for the sun. In contrast, the previous week, Cebu was drenched. Daily, it showered. But not this week. Until 10 minutes after The End.

What timing! Had Basti Lacson, who orchestrated this massive successful operation, also negotiated a direct line Upstairs for the impeccable timing?

Kudos to Aboitiz. Well done.

CCC. When I asked for a commentary from the golfer whose blast off the tee can outdistance most of the visiting pros (he averages over 300 yards), the reply of Marko Sarmiento was clear and loud: Cebu Country Club was the winner.

Puzzled, I asked why. Marko explained what Frederic Chiongbian, Clifford Celdran and Pres. Montito Garcia already know: Months back when the Asian Development Tour (ADT) officials visited for an inspection, they grumbled. This par-72 course is too easy. The scores are too low. Let’s make it difficult.

Difficult they did. Holes 7 and 11 were transformed from par-5s to par-4s. The fairways were squeezed narrower. Grass at the sides, grown taller. Most of all, the greens were cut so short that, in some holes, you can see a hint of brown—the soil.

The result? Possibly the most difficult CCC course since its founding in 1928. (Good thing, in the last two days, the greens were wet early in the morning. This moistened the putting grounds. If not, the same hard bounces in the first two days would have occurred.)

Marko’s correct. It was as if the U.S. Open were held in Cebu. Who’d have imagined that only one—Jay Bay’—will score below par?

The Cup of Golf and the Davis Cup

One is an international event while the other is an event between nations. They’re the same. One uses a white synthetic ball while the other, a yellow fuzzy ball. They’re the same.

The Aboitiz Invitational 2011 is the most prestigious golf event to land in Cebu. It’s happening today. Yesterday. Tomorrow. And Saturday.

The Davis Cup 2011 is the most illustrious tennis event to bounce in Cebu. It’s not happening yet. The dates are September 16 to 18.

Today happens to be the very first ‘BER day of the year—we’re SeptemBER 1—and the Davis Cup is only 15 days away.

Isn’t our island lucky? The four-day golf-fest now being played at Cebu Country Club could easily have been situated in Davao’s Apo Golf or Laguna’s Caliraya Springs or Manila’s Canlubang. But it’s here. Right across the “soon-to-open” Ciudad. Cebu is blessed. We, Cebuanos, are blessed. Same with the sport that’s being played in Flushing Meadows, New York. It’s called tennis.

The Davis Cup clash between the Philippines and Chinese Taipei could easily have been held at the Rizal Memorial courts in Manila or the Philippine Columbian Association (PCA) indoor facility. But, no. The venue is here. Like golf. It’s at the Plantation Bay Resort and Spa. The island… ah, Cebu. My point is this: Let’s watch!!

These twin tournaments just two weeks apart are the paramount sporting marvels of this Year of the Cat.

With the Aboitiz Invitational, I watched for nearly 60 minutes yesterday—thanks to the personal tour by Atty. Jovi Neri, a 4-handicapper whose best score in CCC is an astonishing 67. Jovi drove the golf cart of Clifford Celdran. We followed Elmer Salvador, whose 1-over final score was the best by noontime.

Chuckie Hong? Playing his first pro tournament on his Cebu home court, I watched him wear a REDGOLF cap and drive that first drive on Hole No. 10. A friend to all the caddies and local CCC boys, he received the loudest applause.

(Sun.Star photo)

Miguel Tabuena was impressive. Only 16 years old, the “Boy Wonder of Golf” flew in from Taiwan a couple of days ago. We shook hands. “The last time I played on this course,” said the 2010 Asian Games silver medalist, “was when I was only nine years old.” Mig shot a 2-over. I left at noon and, by then, the scores were high. One pro logged a 9-over.

The reason for the high scores: “The greens were very, very hard.” Those words were uttered by Miguel T., about the same age as our top guns named LJ Go and Gio Gandionco.

What I found unusual yesterday was that very few people watched. Entering CCC around 11:15 A.M., I expected to find difficulty parking. Only a dozen cars were parked. This is perplexing. Or, maybe not. Because while the distinguished and exalted of golfers are joining, there’s no Phil M. or TW1 or even a Keegan Bradley, the PGA Championship winner. Also, yesterday was a Wednesday—the first working day after a four-day-long weekend. Everybody’s busy; at work.

Still, I hope more people watch. Today. Tomorrow. Especially on the finale, on Saturday. Be you a golfer or a non-golfer, the perfect mix of blue skies with putting greens and multi-colored Asian and European and American golfers ought to make you visit the Country Club.

Back to the Davis Cup tennis: This is another not-to-be-missed contest. Our players are: Cecil Mamiit, previously ranked as high as world No. 72 and was the “sparring” (or make that “hitting”) partner of Maria Sharapova; there’s Treat Huey, world-ranked No. 71 in doubles; and two newcomers: Jeson Patrombon and Ruben Gonzales.

Chinese Taipei? Team Taiwan is led by Lu Yen-Hsun. Currently No. 82, he was once ranked as high as world No. 33. If he comes to Lapu-Lapu City… Oh, no… it will be tough. (Update: In his first round U.S. Open match yesterday, he lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. This means he might come to Cebu!).

Davis Cup tickets, priced at only P200/day or P500 for three days, are now available at Chris Sports SM or Ayala. Get your DC tickets now.

Aboitiz Invitational goes International

Montito Garcia, the most celebrated amateur golfer of our island and the current president of the Cebu Country Club, had this to say in our phone conversation yesterday: “The Aboitiz Invitational is the biggest ever golf tournament that CCC has hosted. In terms of prize money (about P2,500,000), in the number of international players that are joining (80 golfers from the Asian Development Tour and 40 from the Philippine Golf Tour)… we’ve never experienced anything like this before.”

True. How about the golf course? Its condition given that rains have engulfed our island? “Cebu Country Club is ready,” Montito said. “Although there’s been too much rain the past weeks, that’s the beauty of golf. Everybody plays in the same conditions. And, with the high caliber of these international players, you can put them in a carabao course and they’ll still excel.”

Today, the celebration begins. It’s the Pro-Am Day of the Aboitiz Invitational 2011, when three amateurs mix with one professional in one flight. It’s a chance for an Atty. Jovi Neri to be in the same flight with pro Robert Pactolerin. Completing their foursome are Jovi’s dad, Atty. Julius Neri, and Mark Dy.

Today is an opportunity for Cebuanos to spend hours on the course with a pro; an occasion for the professional to do a relaxed practice round around CCC. Tomorrow, the combat begins. It’s the start of the four-day tournament. Will our top local, Artemio Murakami, make our nation proud by winning the Cebu leg?

Last week, Murakami was ranked No. 3 in the ADT money list. This ranking is important. The top three earners will get automatic spots in the Asian Tour. The bad news is, after last weekend’s Ballantine’s Taiwan Championship, Murakami has slipped to a No. 5 ranking. If he wins—or does well—starting tomorrow until Saturday here in Cebu, he can regain that Top 3 spot. But it will be tough. There are 126 players expected to join. A total of 19 countries are represented.

What makes this event so huge is this: The very first Philippine stop of the Asian Development Tour (ADT) is not in Manila. It’s not in Tagaytay. It’s not in Wack Wack or Valley Golf or Riviera. It’s in the City of Cebu. The 2011 schedule started last February in Bangladesh. Then it moved to various courses around Malaysia and Chinese Taipei. It’s 7th stop? On our Philippine archipelago?

The par-70 golf course located in Banilad. Par 70? Isn’t the CCC a Par 72 course? Yes and Yes. “The Par 70 will only be for the Aboitiz Invitational,” answered marathoner Frederic Chiongbian, the CCC golf chairman. “Two par 5 holes, number 7 and number 11, will be played as par 4’s during the tournament. After, the course will retain its par 72 rating.”

Starting last April, a lot of work has been done to improve the course. “We’re slowly re-doing some areas of the course (e.g. tee mounds, drainage, tree pruning, bunkers),” added Chiongbian.

To comply with ADT standards, the course is now more difficult: the fairways, narrower; the roughs, tougher; the greens, faster.

All credit goes to the Aboitiz family, whose Aboitiz Equity Ventures headquarters sits right beside Cebu Country Club. No doubt, this is one of the year’s most illustrious of sporting events.

In an email he sent me two nights ago, Basti Lacson, the lead advocate of this event representing Aboitiz, acknowledges the importance of the partnership between ADT, the PGT, sponsor ICTSI and Aboitiz Equity Ventures.

Basti also named four Pinoys—Murakami, Elmer Salvador, Juvic Pagunsan and Miguel Tabuena—as contenders to win the $11,000 first prize.

As to the general public? Let’s watch! “The course is open for the public to watch, starting tomorrow until Saturday, Sept. 3,” said Basti Lacson.

Added Montito Garcia: “We are not charging anything. This is a great opportunity to see some of the best in Asia. And, who knows, a few of these stars will next join the European and U.S. Tours and become Top 10 world-ranked players. It’s our chance to watch them. Right here in Cebu.”

Rudy Labares, 66

One of the best ever in Philippine golf quietly passed away Tuesday last week. Only 66 years old, Rudolfo “Rudy” Labares succumbed to liver cancer.

I requested Atty. Jovi Neri, the former Cebu Country Club club champion and a dear friend of the Cebuano ace, to write a story about the man who called CCC his home. Here’s Atty. Neri’s full piece:

“Rudy Labares was voted one of the top 10 all-time greatest Filipino golfers in a poll conducted five years ago and rightfully so. Locally, in the 1980s, he set a Philippine Tour record of 7 wins in one season, which at that time surpassed Frankie Minoza’s 6 wins.

“Another record he still owns is the tournament record in relation to par in the Philippine Open where he shot 16-under par in Villamor Golf Club in his 1984 win. At age 46, he was the oldest player in the modern era to win the Philippine Tour order of merit crown in 1991.

“His international achievements are legendary. He led the Philippines to its best-ever finish of 2nd place in the World Cup of Golf in 1977, finished second to the Seve Ballesteros-led Spain. He also finished second in the individual honors to all-time great Gary Player – one of only five players to win all four professional majors.

“Labares’ most cherished win was the Rolex Masters Singapore, which at that time was one of the majors in the Asian Tour. Since he was the Order of Merit leader in the local tour even in his 40’s, he was chosen twice to the Philippine team to play in the Dunhill Cup in the home of golf in St. Andrews Scotland.

“Against Spain, he was pitted against two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal. Against USA, he played Chip Beck, who was only the second player even in PGA Tour history to card a 59.

“Labares was a soft-spoken individual who quietly went about his business with little fanfare. This may be the reason why, in spite of his achievements in a career where he competed against the likes of Celestino Tugot… then Ben Arda… then Frankie Minoza… and even against some of the current crop of pros still active like Carito Villaroman and Cassius Casas, he has relatively slipped under the radar when the all-time greats of the Philippines are mentioned. But his accomplishments on the golf course are right up there, and even better, than some who are more highly-regarded or oft-mentioned.

“Throughout his career, Labares has always called Cebu Country Club his home and never permanently settled outside Cebu. He has always practiced and worked on his game in Cebu. It is for this reason, he should be easily regarded as one of the best Cebuano professional athletes of all-time.”

Thanks to Jovi for the mini-biography on Labares. A full-length chronicle will be published soon in Jovi’s column with the Inquirer Monthly Golf magazine.

NIMROD. Another golf devotee I contacted was Nimrod Quiñones, the Managing Editor of The Freeman. I owe Nimrod a lot. He was the person who invited me to write a sports column. This was in 1994.

Nimrod interviewed Mr. Labares last month. In his Full Point column for The Freeman dated July 14 and titled “A chat with a living legend,” Nimrod wrote: “I had the chance to talk with the living legend yesterday at the Cebu Country Club in connection with Full Point: The Cebu Sports Show, which airs over Wealth TV Channel 28 on SkyCable and Destiny Cable.”

Added Nimrod: “(Rudy) started as a ball boy at the age of 10 and five years later became a caddie. In another five years, Labares, who spent a lot of time honing his skills, was already competing and winning tournaments. One thing that struck me during our interview was when he said that he used to practice from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Many of us can’t even spend an hour on the driving range and hope to finish playing as fast as we could, but not Rudy.”

The Rudy Labares TV interview will be aired possibly later this week, said Nimrod. I’m sure this will be a stirring and poignant interview. Let’s watch it.

Eric Deen wins his 5th Cebu Country Club title

Eric with his dad, Danny

The golf champion from 1997 to 1999 and, again, in 2004, it’s been many summers since he last won the Club Championship trophy of the Cebu Country Club.

Yesterday, playing another former titlist — Jovi Neri, who won the 2001 edition — he finally won again after playing 18 holes in the morning and 17 holes in the afternoon.

“That was tiresome!” said Eric Deen, seconds after receiving a congratulatory hug from his family members that included his dad (and former club champion) Atty. Danny Deen, and his sisters Jackie Lotzof and Vanessa Deen.

Jackie, Danny, Eric, Vanessa and James

It was Eric’s fifth Men’s Club Championship victory. Dating back to 1965 when Luis Ugarte won one of Cebu’s most revered of amateur golf titles, Eric’s Victory No. 5 elevates him to second in the all-time winners list: he and Carl Almario have five apiece while Montito Garcia — the new CCC president — has eight trophies.

Yesterday afternoon, thanks to Charlie Michael, who helped drive the golf cart, I was able to watch the back nine starting with Hole No. 13. At that point, Eric was leading 1-up and, after Jovi landed in the sand trap after his second shot, it was Eric who won that hole and led, 2-up, with five holes to go.

Eric and Jovi, from Holes 14 to 17, were both steady. They parred each hole. The crucial moment came in Hole # 14 when, after his tee shot, Eric drove left and landed far from the green. He was under a shade of trees. But, the ultra-relaxed player that he is (you’d never know, from watching, that he was in the final of a major tournament), Eric punched his second shot as the ball flew, hit a few branch leaves, then safely landed on the green. Par.

This 2011 (though the CCC Club championship, oddly, is called the 2010 edition), Eric Deen had no par. He was unbeatable. In his first round, he bested Macky Michael (my best friend on the tennis court), 5 and 4. In Round 2, he beat Jon Joseph Alvarez, 4 and 2. Then, in probably the most thrilling of all the week’s encounters, Mark Dy led Eric Deen in the semi-finals one-up with two holes to play. Sadly for Mark, he bogeyed the final two holes and lost, 1-up. At 4:30 p.m. yesterday on Hole # 17, Eric received a resounding applause when he won 2 and 1 against Jovi.

Bayani Garcia, Vicky Moraza and The Champ

In the Class B division, Evans Tumaliwan won after beating Kiddy Limchao, Jr., 1-up. In the Class C category (perfect because of the way his family name sounds), it was champion Andrew Si. He beat Henry Dy. In the Class D, it was Naotsugu Isobe besting Rhoudie Tiu. The CCC Senior champion was Koichi Horii. And, on the opposite end, the Women’s Champion was Abby Olea.