Sullivan: Porter Cup sting about much more than golf

Jerry Sullivan

Right to the end, Dena Armstrong was still holding out hope. This was the Porter Cup, after all, which isn’t so much a golf tournament as a civic treasure. There had to be a way to make sure that the event would go on as planned from July 22-25 at the Niagara Falls Country Club.

But as she listened to members of the executive committee on a conference call late last week, Armstrong came to grips with the harsh reality. There were simply too many logistical issues involved in running one of the world’s finest amateur tournaments.

The border to Canada was still closed. And what about all the players who traveled from around the globe? Would it be OK to house them with local families, despite COVID-19 fears? Who knew what the situation in New York would be by then? Could they keep fans safe?

“It just became too complicated,” Armstrong, the tourney co-director, said this week. She said the five directors were still expecting to go forward when they spoke the night before the executive committee meeting would make a final call.

“Then, when other members of the executive committee started talking, and asking how we were going to this and do that, I changed my vote to ‘no.' Me, the biggest advocate of moving forward.”

The committee voted to cancel the Porter Cup for the first time since its inception in 1959. Armstrong hung up the phone. She was crying.

Could you blame her? The Porter Cup has been a part of Armstrong’s life since she was a little girl. Her parents began hosting players in their home when the tourney started. The family tradition has been carried down through the years, as Dena and her siblings routinely host young golfers from around the world during the tournament.

It really is a family affair. Judi Caserta, a past chairman, once said “It’s in our DNA.” Tom Denn ran the tourney for years and passed it along to his son, Steve, who handed off to Armstrong and Mike Vitch. Hosting players is tradition for 60 to 70 families at Niagara Falls CC.

Armstrong, the wife of Toronto Raptors color announcer and former Niagara basketball coach Jack Armstrong, worked her first Porter Cup in 1972, when she was a junior in high school. She and a friend delivered the results to the scoreboard as the players finished.

“My father was a marshal for years,” she recalled. “My mother was all-in. She was involved in nine-hole scoring. She made cookies and all that kind of stuff. They needed a couple of young girls to run the scores from the 18th across the street in front of the clubhouse. The scoreboard was over there.

“You took steps up to it. It was all manual, You had to put the names up there and change it. We did it all day. Do you remember Ralph Hubbell? They broadcast live from a desk in front of the scoreboard. We’d have to comment back and forth with him. It was hysterical.”

Ben Crenshaw won the title that year, which tells you the sort of talent that has gone through Lewiston. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Dustin Johnson and Scott Verplank have all played in it. Gary Nicklaus and Nathaniel Crosby have won it.

Of course, some of the fondest memories are the ones from off the course, especially between golfers and families who housed them during the Porter Cup and became friends for life.

Dena and Jack Armstrong began hosting players soon after they got married in 1993, once they bought their house in Lewiston, right across from Canada. Jack was on the road coaching, so they would host three or four college kids.

“When we started having kids (they adopted three boys who are now 22, 21 and 20), we’d throw our kids out of their bedrooms and put golfers in each of their rooms,” she said with a laugh. “My kids knew they would have to sleep on the floor in our room, or in dad’s den or the living room, because golfers were coming and they had to clear out.”

Armstrong’s brother, Alan Elia, hosts four players every year. One was Garrett Rank, a top amateur golfer who became an NHL referee. Alan and Rank became good friends. When Garrett works a game in Buffalo, they’ll generally get together afterwards.

“They’re thick as thieves,” Dena said.

That’s the Porter Cup for you. Armstrong is fond of University of Virginia players; they might consider her good luck. In 2015, Denny McCarthy of UVa was tourney champion. Thomas Walsh, another Cavalier, won in 2018. In fact, both the men’s and women’s (Zoe-Beth Brake) champs stayed at the Armstrong abode in 2018.

Tim Drabik, a Lewiston attorney, has been hosting Porter Cup participants for several years. They generally start to feel like part of the family, some more than others.

“My wife (Cindy) and I don’t have kids,” Drabik said. “We like to think that we have 16 kids, all the kids that have stayed with us. It’s crazy, the full circle.”

Some players become more like family than others. In 2009, the Drabiks hosted a young South African named Dylan Frittelli for the first time. Tim wasn’t home when Frittelli was dropped off at the house. Cindy was shopping for groceries.

“She turns around and he has every cupboard of the kitchen open,” Tim said, “and he’s putting the groceries away. We sit down and start talking. He tells us how his family in South Africa had been the victim of two home invasions. Once, he was hiding up in a closet while his mother was tied up downstairs.”

They developed a close personal and professional bond. Frittelli, who starred on a University of Texas team with Jordan Spieth, stayed with the Drabiks for three Porter Cups, where Tim caddied for him. The second year, he came a week early and stayed 14 days. Every time Cindy walked into a room, Dylan stood up.

In 2012, Frittelli made the putt on 18 to win a match and give Texas the NCAA title. Tim and Cindy watched it live on their iPad. Frittelli invited them to Las Vegas to see the Intercollegiate Masters and help him “navigate turning professional.”

Frittelli met with lots of aggressive agents. Tim told him to be careful. He didn’t necessarily need an agent. Dylan hired one, anyway. It didn’t go well. He signed with another agent and didn’t care for him, either. Drabik remained a friend and confidante.

Over the next few years, Frittelli bounced around. He competed on the Challenge Tour and the European Tour. He had some success and qualified for the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, his first major. He invited Drabik down to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the week to watch him play and hang out.

On the morning of the first round, Frittelli told his family he was going with Drabik to the course for breakfast, just the two of them. Spieth, by then a three-time major champion, approached their table at breakfast and Dylan told him they needed privacy.

“He looks at me and says ‘I don’t want to hear I told you so’,” Drabik said. “‘Bottom line. ‘You were right. I was wrong. I want you to be my agent. I’ll get rid of these guys. Take it over from here.’

“I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Drabik became Frittelli’s agent and manager. Two years ago, when Frittelli got into the Masters, he fulfilled a promise he had made to Drabik years earlier while carrying his bag at the Porter Cup. He let Tim caddie for him in the par-3 tourney at Augusta.

Frittelli, who turns 30 next week, broke through last season, when he won his first PGA Tour event at the John Deere Classic and earned a shade over $1.5 million. Drabik goes to some of his events, where he’ll run into players he’s gotten to know through the years, or who also stayed at his house, like Beau Hossler.

“It’s fun now to go out on tour and let them foot the bill for dinner, rather than me doing it.” Drabik said.

The true reward, of course, is the one that comes from helping a young player on his way up, while doing your little part to make the Porter Cup one of the best amateur tournaments in the world, and the jewel of Western New York golf.

All this time, and not one mention of 300-yard drives or the greens on the AW Tillinghast-designed course. It’s about so much more than golf, which is why it will hurt so much to see a summer go by without it.

“It’s so great for this little community,” Drabik said. “But as much as we all wanted to believe that things would be better in July, it was crystal clear that the event we were going to put on wasn’t going to be anything like what we’ve been doing for 50-some years. Dena’s crushed.”

Armstrong said a text showed up on her cell phone seconds after she hung up crying. It was Bob Travis, treasurer of the executive committee.

“Mike Vitch and I will be right over with cocktails,” it read.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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