ALTOONA – Chippewa Valley Golf Association Open Chairman Mark Barstad talked up the impressive young talent in the field entering this year's Tournament of Champions. In the end, though, one of the oldest competitors finished on top.
George Smith shot a five-under 66 in the CVGA's season-closing event at Eau Claire Golf & Country Club on Saturday, besting second-placed Bennett Swavely just one week prior to his 62nd birthday. Barstad said Smith, who made the long trek from his home in St. Paul, Minn., to compete, is the oldest player to ever win the Tournament of Champions.
Helping his cause were the familiar faces he played with.
"My pairing was so fun," said Smith, who golfed alongside Mark Sperling, Greg Murphy and Leif Carlson. "I've been playing with those guys for 30 years. It's like old friends, and I hadn't seen them all this year. It was just fun. Mark gave me a good pairing."
Smith, who also won this event in 1999, thought he may have finished just short after a frustrating final hole. He figured he'd need to birdie No. 18 to hang with Ryan Isaacson, the CVGA player of the year, and those plans were foiled when his shot went a foot past the green.
"That's a birdie hole, especially where I left it," Smith said. "I had 85 yards to the hole and I hit my 85-yard club, and it's uphill, so I thought, 'That can't go over.' And it went over, so I hit it about 90. It usually goes 85, so I guess I was a little excited."
He didn't know until walking back to the clubhouse, but he had enough of a cushion to stay ahead of Swavely, a Hudson senior and University of Minnesota commit.
"A lot of good young players here," Smith said. "I feel really pleased I can still compete with gray hair."
Barstad wasn't surprised by Smith's victory, complimenting his "flawless" swing, and called him an inspiration for players over 50.
"If that isn't a signature aspect of the game of golf, I don't know what is," Barstad said. "When you can get guys that hit it way farther, that are younger, that are getting lessons, and some 61-year-old guy comes in and wins this thing, I just think it's incredible. …
"He's been a big CVGA supporter through the years. He's a Hall of Famer, future Hall of Famer, so I couldn't be happier for him. It's a great way to finish off the year."
Rounding out the top five were Cole Janke (69), Brian Hills (70) and Dave Walker (71). Isaacson, who won the first four CVGA events of the season, finished tied for eighth with a 73.
Saturday's festivities wrapped up an eight-event Championship Tournament schedule for the CVGA, which opted to play on during the coronavirus pandemic.
"It wasn't the easiest year," Barstad said. "We didn't know what was going to happen. We didn't know if people were going to come out. But we went forth with the year, and in hindsight it was the right decision, but it wasn't an easy decision at the beginning because we had all the things the state put on us, don't touch the pins, don't rake the bunkers, one person per cart, you can't congregate. It was a bunch of stuff, but we said, 'You know what? If the courses are open, let's play tournament golf.'"