Clearing the Way at Greate Bay
Flyers legends cut down a tree to benefit charity – and their golf game
By Heather Morse

On one blustery day last month, the warning shouts of “Fore!” normally heard on the links at Greate Bay Country Club in Somers Point were instead replaced with bellows of “Timber!”

The men behind the commotion – Philadelphia Flyers great Bob Clarke and his friend Steve Coates, a long-time color commentator for the hockey team – had traded in their golf clubs for an ax and a crosscut saw. Their goal wasn’t to enjoy an afternoon on the links, but rather to take down a tree.

The targeted tree towered over one side of the fifth fairway at the course, causing golfers – especially left-handed players like Clarke – grief for decades. When the fairways and greens at the Shore course were designed nearly 100 years ago, the hickory tree was just a sapling. Over the years, that thin plant grew into a towering tree that stood more than 40 feet tall, blocking the fairway.

Though he was a Philadelphia Flyer who led his team to two Stanley Cups during his playing career from 1969 to 1984, was named league MVP three times, had three 100-point seasons and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987, Clarke’s athleticism on the ice was no match for the tree.

Coates, who is an Egg Harbor Township resident and also a former hockey player (though for just one season, with the Detroit Red Wings), likes to joke that his good friend and golfing buddy’s tee shots “squarely hit the tree 80 percent of the time. That tree almost taunts him.” In fact, while golfing just the day before the tree-cutting ceremony, Clarke had struck the tree dead center with his shot from the tee box.

All those years of Clarke’s frustrations with the tree came out as he and Coates attacked the course menace with the ax and saw. At one point, a chainsaw was brought into play, but in the end the two brought down the tree while on either end of a two-man saw.

As the crowd cheered and applauded their lumberjack skills, Joel Inman, general manager of the country club, drove a forklift with a new tree onto the fairway. At just over 10 feet tall, this new tree promises to be a more golfer-friendly replacement.

“For five or six years, lots of players had been dropping subtle hints about getting rid of the tree. Of course, some of those hints from Bob and a few other people weren’t exactly what I would call subtle,” jokes Inman.

Another one of those not-so-subtle hints came from Annika Sörenstam, one of the most successful female golfers in history (and a left-handed golfer). Inman says she took issue with the stately tree. “During an LPGA tournament here, she commented, ‘I don’t see the point in that tree,’” he says.

Based on feedback heard around the clubhouse and fairways, Inman and Greate Bay owner Mark Benevento decided last season to offer up the fate of the tree to club members. Rather than just cutting it down, they opted to get creative and hold a fundraising drive to benefit The First Tee of Greater Atlantic City, an organization that shares and teaches the game of golf and its positive values to young players.

Members could contribute $1 per vote to either save or remove the tree. The first side to reach $6,000 could claim victory and decide the tree’s fate. “Word around the clubhouse is that Bob stuffed the ballot box,” says Coates.

As a result of their fundraising efforts, club members presented the children of The First Tee with a check for $10,000 following the tree-cutting ceremony. “This whole thing has been a lot of fun,” says Coates. “Though much of the focus has been on the tree, the bottom line is we were able to raise money for the kids involved with The First Tee, and that’s the best thing.”

Clarke agrees it was fun to get involved, but is still feeling victorious in his win against the hickory. “I was excited. That tree was a menace to golfers, and there might be a few more trees on the course that need to be replaced.”

August 2011
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