It’s all about brotherhood

“For outstanding leadership in promoting the cause of good will and understanding among all the people of our county, there-by fostering amity, justice and cooperation among Americans of every faith, helping to eliminate intergroup prejudices, which disfigure and distort religious, business, social and political relations, and materially aiding the work of Lycoming County ‘Brotherhood County, USA’ and bringing us nearer the goal of the Brotherhood of Man under the fatherhood of God.”

So reads a Ray Keyes Sports Award that was presented in 1999.

When the sports award first was given in 1957, the local organization was a part of the Lycoming County Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, which in the 1990s became and now is called the National Conference for Community and Justice. The county chapter, however, broke away from the national affiliation during those years to become Lycoming County, ‘Brotherhood County, USA,’ which it remained through 2008, and now is called the Lycoming County Brotherhood Alliance. But by any name, its goals, and the responsibility of its recipients, remain the same “fight bias, bigotry and racism and promote understanding and respect through advocacy, conflict resolution and education.”

According to its website, “the primary focus of The Lycoming County Brotherhood Alliance is to promote the universal theme of understanding, tolerance and community harmony through brotherhood. Brotherhood; practiced daily, in the work place, at home and in all interactions with others, is the underlying tenant of a rational and humanistic society. It is our belief that the promotion of brotherhood is often played out in quiet, unassuming and humble ways through the lives of many citizens of Lycoming County. We believe these lives should be recognized in a public way.”

And specifically addressing what has become the Ray Keyes Sports Award, the website says, “The Ray Keyes Sports Award has traditionally recognized a high personal, and ongoing commitment to the development of sports skills and sportsmanship of the youth of the county by a county resident. The Ray Keyes Sports Award was named in honor of Ray Keyes, a long-time sports writer and sports editor at the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. He was involved in almost every aspect of sports and sports reporting in the North Central Pennsylvania’s scholastic and community contests.

Serving for many years as a member of the board of directors, Ray was a steadfast promoter of sports and the region in general. This award has become recognized in the Williamsport community as a prestigious sports honor in the region.”

Over the years, the honor also has been allocated to those who are leaders, share their passion and love of sports with others and are making a positive difference in the county. Following is the story of this year’s award winner: Warren J. Choate.

Banquet Wednesday

During an amateur golf career that spanned four decades and resulted in hundreds of wins, Choate has seen and done it all on the course, inspiring a new generation of players. And on Wednesday, he will be honored by the alliance as the 63rd recipient of the award during its annual banquet at the Genetti Hotel. Doors open at 5:45 p.m. and dinner is at 6:30.

Also being honored that night are Betsy Rider, owner of Otto’s Bookstore in Williamsport, and Dan Klingerman, president and CEO of the Liberty Group, who each will receive William Pickelner Brotherhood Citation awards. The keynote speaker for the event will be Barry Morrison, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“W.J.” grew up in a golfing family. Both his mother, Melva “Mel,” an eight-time women’s club champion at Williamsport Country Club, and his father, Warren A., played, so it was only natural that W.J. would follow in their footsteps.

“My parents had pictures of me with diapers on, when we lived in Camp Hill, swinging a plastic club cross-handed,” Choate said with a laugh. “The golf really didn’t get started until we moved here in 1960 (at age 7). I used to spend a lot of time hitting balls with Ginny Walters, who at one time was the top amateur woman here and maybe in the state, and the old (WCC) pro, Jack Phelan.”

Choate said golf came naturally to him, but in his early years winning didn’t come easy. He got his first taste of competitive golf against adults in the Williamsport Country Club Invitational, long considered the best tournament in this part of the state, with its roots going back to 1928. His father was Choate’s partner for the first three years.

Invitational splash

Then, in 1972, as a 19-year-old, he teamed with Rick Vanderlin and made his first splash at the invitational as they won medalist honors during qualifying by shooting a 66 in the 96-team best-ball event.

“A pair of Loyalsock Township teenage underdogs produced the biggest surprise in the qualifying rounds of the Williamsport Country Club’s 43rd Invitational Golf Tournament,” a story in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette began the next day.

Choate, who had graduated from Loyalsock Township High School in 1970 and had just finished his second year of college, and Vanderlin, a 1972 Loyalsock grad, reached the semifinals that year before being eliminated by the eventual champs in a one-hole playoff. But it was just the beginning.

The next year Choate-Vanderlin reached the final, where they were beaten 1-up by John Mazza-John Hanna, out of Clinton County.

A loss in the quarterfinals the following year marked the last time Choate-Vanderlin competed together in the invitational, but the following year, 1975, Choate teamed with Mazza to win his first of what would become 12 championships.

“It felt like it took forever,” he said recently of the first win. “It felt great.”

Practice important

In any sport, one doesn’t get to the top and stay there without effort – a lot of it. Choate recalls that for years after his day was finished at the family business, Susquehanna Paper and Sanitary Supply Corp., he would head for the golf course and work on his game, many times until it was dark. Always a long driver, Choate spent most of his practice time on chipping and putting.

“It was like I had to go hit balls. It was part of my life; if I didn’t, I was going to lose something, lose the feel for something. I practiced all of the time, trying to find that little niche thing that would keep me ahead of the pack,” he said.

To say that Choate owned the Williamsport Country Club course for much of the next three decades might be an understatement. He repeated as the invitational champ with Mazza in 1976 and they lost in the semifinals in 1977. With Mazza working on turning pro in 1978, Choate turned to fellow WCC member Joe Reynolds to partner with. They were a good match.

Choate-Reynolds dominate

Over 27 years, Choate-Reynolds won a team-record 10 championships (1981, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1994, 1997, 2000, 2002 and 2003). They also finished second six times (1979, 1980, 1982, 1990, 2006 and 2007) and lost in the semifinals another six times. Over the years, Choate and his partners were medalists in the invitational a record 16 times, 13 with Reynolds, including 1990 when he and Reynolds recorded a tourney low record-tying 61. That year also was notable for the duo as their final match against Joe Lewis-Jim Spagnolo went to sudden-death and took nine extra holes and a record 7 hours, 43 minutes to complete.

At one point early in his amateur career, as he was coming into his own, Choate was encouraged by Hanna to turn pro. But Choate chose to remain an amateur – a decision he says he doesn’t regret.

“I had a great amateur career. Joe and I had a great relationship. A lot of times when you’re in a match or tournament, you might be undecided about the shot We hardly ever had to communicate that way. We

could look at each other across the fairway and we knew what to do,” Choate said.

During the stretch of winning medalist honors at the invitational, Choate remarked that one isn’t remembered for being the medalist, only for winning championships. Yet the achievement is significant and is a testament to the standard they were trying to set and excellence they achieved.

“No matter what tournament I’ve been in, when they announce the pairings it’s like, ‘oh, those guys got the medal, so you figure they played a really hot round, made a lot of birdies and they’re both playing really good, so it’s going to be a tough match,’ ” Choate said.

“When you play in a sport, you play to win; whether you’re qualifying or it’s the last day of the tournament,” he continued, adding about the depth of his competitive spirit, “get them on the ground and rub their nose in the dirt and walk over top of them.”

Although all of the WCC titles were significant, one of the more memorable was No. 8, which came on July 23, 2000, his late father’s 82nd birthday anniversary. His father passed the following year.

Tournament chairman

It has been going on 10 years since Choate last tasted victory in the WCC Invitational, after medaling with a 63 in 2003, again with Reynolds, and topping fellow WCC members Eric McNulty-John Zurich 1-up in the final. He and Reynolds finished second in 2007, as a new generation of youngsters came on the scene, and they played in their last invitational in 2009. W.J. still has a hand in the tournament, however, as he has served as its chairman since 1985, when he took over for former state Sen. Henry Hager after 16 years.

“I learned how to lose (in the invitational) and then I learned how to win playing there,” he said. “That was my building ground of learning how to control your emotions, your adrenaline.”

In addition to his remarkable WCC Invitational legacy, Choate captured men’s club championships at WCC nine times (1977, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1983, 1986, 1989, 1992 and 1999), and his round of 63 in 1977 is a modern WCC record.

Reflecting on his low round, he said, “It was a 63 with a bogey on 18. I was 9-under par standing on the 18 tee. I’m thinking, ‘As good as I’m playing and putting, I can eagle this, but I’ve got to hit it far enough to hit an iron’ (to the green) and the wind was against us. If I par the hole, I’ve got the course record tied. Eagle it, I shoot 60.

“I pulled my drive a little bit and it went under the only tree in the area. So I gripped a 3-wood down to the steel on the shaft, bent my knees and thought I could get the club on it and get it (the ball) over the hill and roll it down maybe on or to the front (of the green). I topped it. Then I hit a 1-iron into the left bunker. I hit the bunker shot fat and left it on the fringe. I was on the left side of the green, the pin was on the back right, and I chipped with a 7-iron and it went in the cup and came out.” He tapped in for a six.

On the state level, Choate’s crowning achievement came when he won the Pennsylvania Amateur Championship in 1990 (he also finished second in 1979 and 1992, third in 1976 and 1977 and fourth in 1986 and 1988.) Over the years he also played in two U.S. Opens.

“If Sigel or Marucci wouldn’t have been from Pennsylvania, I probably would have won it four or five times,” Choate said, in reference to R. Jay Sigel and George E. Marucci Jr., who won PA Amateur titles a combined 15 times, 11 by Sigel alone.

“There were a lot of state amateurs where I just had that one bad round. I can remember shooting an 80 at Merion and losing by one shot,” he said.

He mentioned Winged Foot, Oakmont and Oak Hill, in Rochester, N.Y., as some of the toughest courses he’s played.

“I worked hard at it,” he said of one of the keys to his success. “Not wanting to lose,” he added, was another.

Choate’s advice to young golfers is simple: “When you go to hit balls at the range, if you don’t have it (that day), leave. It took me a long time to figure that out. Go putt and chip, because if you don’t have it to start with, you’re going to hit way too many balls trying to find it and you’re going to get in a bad habit. The other thing is try to have somebody watch you when you’re hitting (to help maintain the proper alignment).”

The biggest changes Choate has seen is in golf balls, clubs and physical conditioning.

“It’s amazing, now, how far these guys are hitting them,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

Helped flood victims

While his golfing achievements fill volumes, many people in the Loyalsock Valley will remember Choate for something far different.

Recalling the random acts of kindness he had received nearly two years earlier, after the untimely death of his son, Brock, W.J., made numerous trips up and down Route 87 after severe flooding in September 2011, delivering huge quantities of supplies to people who lived along Loyalsock Creek to assist in their cleanup effort.

“The devastation was just We saw people outside crying, hugging each other. It was just gut-wrenching to watch. The determination that I saw in the eyes of the people who lived there, that this is not going to beat us, blew my mind. It was a humbling experience,” he said. “It was easy (to help).”

And during last year’s WCC Invitational, at Choate’s suggestion, the tournament raised $26,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project. “The money we raised blew my mind,” he admitted.

Choate turned 60 in October and, in hindsight, he said the only goal he didn’t achieve on the course was making the U.S. Walker Cup team, although he was on the watch list once in the late 1970s.

“I’ve got no remorse for anything I’ve done in golf,” he added. “It’s still fun to go out and play with the guys, but you can’t hit the shots like you think you should. On the other hand, it’s kind of been fun getting away from golf. I don’t have to worry about practicing. Every night I’m doing other things and kind of enjoying life.”