Next week’s East Falls Open is the 97th anniversary of the country’s longest running neighborhood golf tournament.
The East Falls Golf Championship is not your father’s golf tournament, or your grandfather’s. It might be your great grandfather’s though. Now in its 97th year, the Championship (aka the East Falls Open) is the oldest neighborhood golf tournament in the country.
Although the tournament didn’t begin until 1920, it had its roots in 1893 when the Philadelphia Country Club opened near City Line Avenue (on the current site of Target and the Presidential City Apartments), giving boys in the Falls a chance to work as caddies.
Before then, most had a harsh, monotonous future in Dobson’s Mill churning out textiles – a “career” that often started at 14 when they dropped out of school. No wonder their parents jumped at the chance to get them out of the factory and into the fresh air.
Long hours on the course soon made many into accomplished golfers, with several becoming assistant pros in the 1900s and some even becoming head pros at Philadelphia clubs. (At one point, 48 young men from the Falls held positions at local clubs as head pros or assistant pros.)
When they weren’t perfecting their game on the course or challenging each other to drive golf balls over the Schuylkill River, they met at the Gunboat Cafe on Midvale Avenue (a few doors above Ridge) to swap golf stories and talk about jobs in the business.
Some became famous and some were colorful characters. Matt Duffy, who sported a waxed moustache and wore fawn-colored spats, was more than just a good golfer (he qualified for the 1922 PGA Championship). He was also a head greenskeeper at the Delaware County Field Club (now Llanerch Country Club) and redesigned the course at the Cape May Country Club (which no longer exists).
In between golf assignments, he made a living in a car painted to look like a Yellow Cab. He would hang out near the Yellow Cab phone in The Falls and if no one was there to answer the call, he would take the call and pick up the fare.
Duffy went from colorful to famous when George Kelly (Grace Kelly’s uncle) wrote a prize-winning play (which later became a movie) “The Show Off” using Duffy as his inspiration for the lead character.
Other notables at the Gunboat included the Falls’ most famous golfer — Jack Burke. Burke missed winning the 1920 U.S. Open by one stroke but went on to win the PGA Senior Championship in 1941. His son Jack Burke, Jr. won a PGA Championship and a Masters tournament (and is also a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame).
Joe Roseman was also a Gunboat regular and “caddy graduate” who went on to big things. He designed more than 50 golf courses, pioneered the use of complete underground watering systems, and built a night-lighted par-three course in 1922. He also invented and manufactured golf course mowers, including a hollow mower roller that preserved turf.
More than anything the Gunboat crew loved to talk golf and occasionally argue over who was the best golfer in the Falls, which led to the first East Falls Open at the Philadelphia Country Club in 1920.
Although the tournament was supposed to be open only to those who had been born in the Falls, the tournament committee often invited local pros from nearby areas. This continued into the late 1930’s when some Fallsers became tired of “outside carpet bagging golf pros” winning their tournament.
In 1938, the committee decided that the tournament would be open only to residents and former residents of The Falls.
Today it allows the sons of anyone who ever lived in the Falls to play too. It also continues to welcome talent levels of all kinds. Players are divided into four flights based on ability and handicap and winners are decided in each flight by a playoff.
Chris Kallmeyer, a 13-time Open champion and the event’s primary organizer, loves the camaraderie and the historic nature of the Open and is already looking forward to its centennial in 2019. He’s hoping to bring the event back to the place it all began — the Philadelphia Country Club. It’d be a fitting return for a great tradition.
It’s Not Too Late!
There’s still time to get into the game. The Open will be held at the Sandy Run Country Club in Oreland starting at 8AM on Monday, September 12.
The entry fee for this year’s event is $125 ($115 if paid in advance), which includes greens fee, cart, luncheon, 2-hour open bar, playoff, and prizes. Players 65 or older opting to compete in Senior Flight (a low-gross competition with no playoff) will pay the discounted Senior rate ($100 per player)
For more information, call Chris Kallmeyer at 215-844-0901 or email him.