NORTHFIELD — Twenty-two golfers drove deep into the night Thursday at Atlantic City Country Club. Alex Scarlett of Galloway Township went deepest of all.
The historic golf club held its inaugural “Thursday Night Lights” long drive competition, featuring some of the area’s longest hitters, both pro and amateur, teeing off under stadium-style lights on the 18th green.
Scarlett, 23, drove the ball like he knew exactly where it was going, and that’s no surprise. He is the assistant pro at Atlantic City Country Club.
But when you consider that the Holy Spirit High School graduate did not pick up a golf club until three years ago, his 366-yard drive to win the professional flight had to come as a bit of a shock.
“I’m a little juiced up tonight, to be honest with you,” Scarlett said. “It’s the atmosphere, really. I can poke it out there 330, 350, if I catch a good one downwind. But 360 … I don’t think I’ve ever hit that. That’s something else.”
Pat Curiale, 46, of Marlton, hit one 358 yards to lead all amateurs.
Phil DiGiacinto, 53, of Ocean City had the longest drive (345) among senior contestants. He also won the overall title as he bested Curiale and Scarlett in the final with a drive of 356 yards.
Scarlett played baseball at Holy Spirit and Rutgers-Camden and picked up golf about three years ago as a summer job, working at the club’s Golf Academy driving range.
“This is fantastic,” he said of the long-drive competition. “They really did a fantastic job putting this together.”
The idea for the long drive competition originated with Doug Fraser, a longtime member whose family owned Atlantic City Country Club for many years. Fraser floated the idea to Michael Burke, the club’s director of golf, and Matt Crowley, the head pro at Stone Harbor Golf Club.
ACCC owner Chip Ottinger loved the idea and decided to bring in lights to incorporate the event with the club’s popular Thursday night happy hour on the Skydeck patio adjacent to the 18th green.
Philadelphia Flyers radio color commentator Steve Coates, a Somers Point resident, served as emcee for the event.
“It looks like we’re going to try to make it an annual thing,” said Fraser, who also participated in the senior division of the event, hitting one 331 yards in the first round. “The Ottinger family is doing a magnificent job of keeping up the legacy of the club. Chip (Ottinger) loves the soul of the club, the character and the history of it, and to keep that alive is pretty special.”
Atlantic City Country Club can claim several “firsts” in golf history. The term “birdie” was first used there in 1903 to represent a score of one under par. It was also the site of the first Senior Tour event (1980) and the home of the first American to win the USGA Open Championship (A.C. golf pro John J. McDermott, in 1911). It also played an important early role in Arnold Palmer’s career.
Phil DiGiacinto certainly doesn’t aspire to that level of golf greatness, but he did draw the honor of being the leadoff driver on Thursday night. The Holy Spirit graduate paid the entry fee of $100 to participate in the contest, and was lucky enough to keep one of his six first-round drives in-bounds to take the early lead among the senior competitors.
“I’m mostly a baseball player, but golf is my favorite sport,” he said. “I just wish I could master it. These guys are way too good.”
Club member Matthew “Boo” Johnson of Northfield participated in the event as an amateur. He hopes “Thursday Night Lights” becomes an annual tradition.
“It was a great idea, everybody was pulling for it,” Johnson said. “I think it will definitely become a tradition here and get bigger and bigger every year.”