When golfers take to the tee for the start of the Spartanburg County Amateur at Three Pines starting on July 15th they will be playing in the 50th championship.
The county championship was begun by Spartanburg Herald sports writer Luther Gaillard in 1974.
Very few, if any golfers in the championship will know how it started or knew it was Gaillard, who was instrumental in making it happen.
Sports writing was a different profession in those days. Sometimes, besides reporting the news, sports writers made some news.
When Gaillard decided Spartanburg County needed a golf championship he made it happen and it was big news.
With Gaillard leading the way the Herald-Journal got behind the effort and turned it into a major coverage event.
Golfers remember countless stories leading up to tournaments over the years, with special newspaper sections produced in advance and after the event.
Winning the Spartanburg County Am might not have been big in other places, but in Spartanburg it was huge.
“There were so many good golfers in Spartanburg getting them in a tournament to see who was the best was great,” said Tommy Biershenk, Sr. who played in the first County Amateur and won the second.
Mike Gravley played in the first championship as a teen-ager. He went on to join Biershenk, Sr. as the only two golfers to win both the Greenville and Spartanburg County Amateurs.
“I remember the guys I was paired with like Stan Littlejohn were legends. I remember hitting every green and still shooting an 81,” but it was a thrill to play.
The year before the County Championship began Village Greens was the site of the 1973 NAIA National Championship Golf tournament.
The Wofford Terriers won the first ever national collegiate championship for a South Carolina school at the course.
The first championship in 1974 set the stage for what would become a normal great finish for the county title.
Richard Lowery and Mike Crowley ended the regulation 36 holes in a tie.
On the first playoff hole Crowley was in good position for a possible birdie while Lowery was in a green side trap.
Legend has it Crowley called over to Lowery and said “knock it in Richard,” and he did for the win and the tournament was off to a great start.
Biershenk, Sr won the next tournament and remembers the fields growing over the years as the event found a permanent home at Lan-Yair, until the course closed in 2004.
“It did get bigger and bigger and it got harder to win, over the years, because of all the good golfers,” he said.
Billy Hough, one of the owners of Lan-Yair, remembers how much fun there was just being around during the tournament.
“The golfers all had their fans and they would come out and follow them around on foot and in carts,” recalled Hough.
Lan-Yair might have been the first course to feature “mobile viewing stands” as dozens and dozens of carts with people hanging from every side followed the leaders on Sunday.
On one very hot and dusty weekend, the carts and foot traffic kicked up so much dust the final group had to wait on the tee until the cloud of dust dissipated.
Before some laws changed. the Amateur often skirted the rules on beer sales on Sunday’s as the hundreds of empty cans around the course would signify.
With the support of Lan-Yair and the promotion by the Herald Journal not only was the tournament on its way to being a successful competition, but it developed as a fund raising opportunity.
“I remember one year the proceeds went to the Sertoma Club and they had a big event just to receive the check. The tournament had an impact,” Hough said.
In the first ten years of the tournament, Lowery and Biershenk would each win another championships. All the winners were a little older and recognized as very good players.
When the tournament began its second decade a new name came to the top of the leader board and it would appear at the top more often than any other, Stan Sill.
The 20 year old lefty had played in the tournament a few times, but the 1982 championship was his first to really be in contention at the end.
“I was playing with older guys who I knew were very good and I was nervous,” said Sill. “I got in position to win, but went into a playoff with Pat Crowley.
Crowley was on the Wofford team that won the National championship at Village Greens and was very much a championship caliber player.
“I managed to win on the third playoff hole, but it was really hard. When I won I thought I had really accomplished something and it helped me get the confidence I needed to do some of the other things I’ve done playing golf,” he said.
Sill won the County Am again in 1985, the same year he won the National Left-Handers championship.
He has over a dozen SCGA Lefty titles to his name. He turned pro for a few years, but after regaining his amateur status, he returned to win three of the four county championships played between 1993 and 1996.
Sill’s six County Championships are the most by any golfer in the history of the tournament.
The only way junior golfers under 18 could play in the County Amateur was to be among the top finishers in the junior championship.
Mike Byce, now the part-owner of The Creek, became the first junior to win the junior championship and then go on to win the County Amateur.
He was the winner of the 1989 tournament between his junior and senior years at Spartanburg High School and before going on to play college golf at Clemson.
Byce was the first of what would be a number of young players taking on the older generation and coming away with wins.
The name most seen on the leader board at the County Amateur has been Biershenk.
In 1990, at just 16 years old Tommy, Jr. followed up on his father’s three County titles with a win of his own and became the youngest golfer to win the championship until his younger brother Nicky tied him in 2000.
“Our family has always been into golf. My father, George, had a par-3 course on the Westside for a long time and that is where the boys really learned the game,” said Biershenk, Sr.
They all learned it well, The family owns 10 county titles. Senior with three, Junior has three, Robbie won twice and Nicky also won twice.
The 36 hole format worked until Lan-Yair closed.
When it came time to find a new course the decision was made to increase the event to 54 holes as other championships were being played around the state.
The first 54 hole event was split between The Creek and the Carolina Country Club. Brian Kennedy became the first 3-day champion.
Byce, now an area professional. helped the tournament begin a rotation to be played at several clubs in the county rather than just one.
In 2006 and 2007 Gravley, who played in the very first Spartanburg Amateur, won the Amateur two years in a row at Woodfin Ridge to go with his four Greenville Amateur championships.
The following year Newberry College golfer Daniel Stanley from Boiling Springs set the 54 hole scoring record at 15-under par to also win at Woodfin Ridge
Kevin Roberts has become the fifth golfer to win at least three championships with wins in 2013, 2016 and 2020.
Last year former Georgia golfer Trevor Phillips won his second county title with his victory at Woodfin Ridge.
He will have his chance to defend his County Championship on the course iwhere he won his first County championship atThree Pines in 2018.
In 2006 the First Tee Upstate began running the event.
The tournament is once again being used as a fund raiser as it was in the beginning.
Proceeds from the championships go to advance First Tee programs in Spartanburg and Cherokee Counties.
The popularity of the event is at an all-time high as the field of 144 competitors was filled weeks before the tournament.
The continued success of the tournament is built on the foundation that was set in place by Gaillard 50 years ago.
There are no more Luther Gaillards’ in the newspaper business, and if there are, the opportunity to make the same kind of impact on a community is now almost impossible.
Those of us who knew Gaillard knew him to be the classic old hard-bitten, hard-living, hard-drinking, guitar playing reporter you saw in old movies.
While it never showed up in print, his language included more four letter words than a boat full of drunken sailors. They hardly ever were meant for harm and always to emphasize one of his opinions.
Sill recalls he was practicing for the County Am on an oppressively hot day only to look up to see Gaillard.
“I remember telling him he was crazy, it was too hot to be out and asked him why? Luther told me he was here because he was getting a story and it was f—-g important,” Sill recalled with a laugh.
The Spartanburg County Am is still important and is a tribute to a one-of-a-kind journalist who did more than just report scores.
If the tournament ever establishes a permanent trophy, as Greenville has done with the Leon Gravley trophy to honor the founder of their county championship, the Luther Gaillard Trophy would be a fitting way to honor the memory of the man who started the championship 50 years ago.
Live scoring for the Spartanburg Co Am is available at https://www.golfgenius.com/pages/8302868604366408438
Categories: Upstate Amateur Golf
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