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Ponky preps for CYO

Archdiocese-sponsored golf tournament is a life memory for many

Memories of the CYO Golf Tournament seem to spark a smile or a hearty laugh from New England golfers. The tournament is like an old friend for those who played in the event as children and young adults at Ponkapoag Golf Course in Canton, better known as Ponky to the regulars.

For 68 years the event has opened its doors to golfers 26 years and younger, giving many their first taste of competition. The CYO once was the measuring stick of a golfer among his or her peers. Over time the event has faded as a benchmark while a host of youth tournaments with more prestige spread across the region.

The CYO still has a place in the community, but now it is more of a building block for young golfers.

Tomorrow another group will create memories when the annual tournament begins with qualifying rounds at Ponkapoag.

"At one time, it was the largest junior golf tournament in the Northeast," said Kathy Stebbins, coordinator of youth ministries for the Archdiocese of Boston. "Now there are more tournaments for juniors, and we look at this tournament more as for kids that like to golf. It's a really good learning event."

Stebbins is in her sixth year coordinating the tournament. In 2001 the CYO drew nearly 400 golfers. This year 150 have registered, nearly the same number as last year, Stebbins said.

"It's not the Mass. Amateur or a national tournament, but it really is kind of a feather in the cap to qualify," Stebbins said. "A lot of the milestones that kids come across in golf are quite memorable, and I think this is one of them."

Somewhere, Tom Cavicchi, 57, is sure he has the newspaper clippings from his CYO tournament title in the late 1960s. Cavicchi, director of instruction at the Harmon Club in Rockland, was then a 17-year-old from Quincy. He beat his best friend for the title and moved on to win the CYO New Englands.

"It was one of our main events during the summer, and at that time it would be one of the big four or five that we would play in junior majors in Massachusetts," Cavicchi said. "All the kids in the area would look forward to that and use it as a measuring stick."

Highlights over the years feature people from all over Massachusetts; from Needham graduate Paul Kauranen draining a hole-in-one with an 8-iron on the second hole in 1977, to Stoneham triplets Brian, Craig, and Glenn Seabury teeing off in the event as 15-year-olds in 1986.

Dave Folan of Canton played in 11 CYO tournaments before winning the senior division in 1996.

But you didn't have to win for the tournament to have an impact.

Paul Bersani, 65, of Weymouth, played in his first CYO tournament when he was around 18. He considered himself a baseball player until a neighbor encouraged him to try golf. His experience in the tournament helped him realize he could compete at a higher level, and he moved on to play golf at Suffolk University.

Bersani now teaches golf fundamentals at the Junior Golf Academy at Ponkapoag and has seen interest in the sport grow.

"Kids used to hit baseballs with their dads; now they're hitting golf balls," he said.

In 1999, both Mike Murphy of Woburn and Sean LaBelle of Georgetown earned titles. LaBelle, who was 16 at the time, recently completed an outstanding golf career at Salem State College.

Krissy McManus of Dedham, who was better known as an All-Scholastic hockey player, took a break from summer hockey to win the girls' intermediate title in 1998. She went on to become a hockey star at Brown University. That year, she tipped Kathyrn Kuchefski of Wellesley, who was launching a golf career that took her to Amherst College.

Many point to Tiger Woods's arrival in the 1990s as increasing interest in the sport for all ages. Instead of playing a few tournaments a year close to home, young players began to travel across the country and participate in as many as 25 tournaments a year. Tournaments such as the CYO became more of a starting point and less of a destination.

Sarah Whitney, a 2007 Hingham graduate, began playing golf at age 7. The CYO was one of the first tournaments where she could play against other girls, said her father, Bob Whitney.

"Everyone goes to Ponky," he said. "It's like a rite of passage. Everyone plays it at one point of time in their life."

She played in the event when she was 12, and often sees the same faces from that time at other area tournaments. She is going to play at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., this fall. One of the girls she played with as a youth was Kerri Connolly of Duxbury, who is a two-time state champion and will play at the University of Maryland.

From the CYO, Whitney moved on to more challenging tournaments.

"They use it now as a little bit of a steppingstone; back then, it was the only game in town. So it had a little bit more importance to the community," Cavicchi said.

Dave Gianferante, 58, of Hingham, grew up with the sport watching his father and uncles. He played in the CYO and is a volunteer at the event. Gianferante is Notre Dame Academy of Hingham golf coach and golf coordinator at Ponkapoag.

Gianferante said the tournament is still beneficial for younger players, "because it gives kids an opportunity to do something they may have thought they could never do."

Whitney credits her experience in events such as the CYO with helping build her career.

"Without them, I wouldn't have been able to play the more elite events," she said, "because you need to get all of your experience at these types of tournaments."

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.

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