The 5th greenh at Sunnehanna Country Club

83rd Sunnehanna Amateur starts Wednesday
By Mike Dudurich • June 11, 2024

The West Penn Golf Association will be well-represented when the 83rd edition of the Sunnehanna Amateur gets underway at Sunnehanna Country Club near Johnstown.

Five players – J.F. Aber, Palmer Jackson, Gregor Meyer, Rocco Salavati and Sam Lafferty -- with varying degrees of experience and success at Sunnehanna, will tee it up Wednesday morning against a collection of the amateur players in the country.

Jackson will be playing in his seventh consecutive Sunnehanna Amateur, making him one of the longest-tenured players in the field, with both Sean Knapp and Nathan Smith not competing this year.

Jackson laughed when asked to recall his first appearance.

This Williamson Cup is an event that features golf associations competing against each other in a team format. In 2016, it was held at the Pittsburgh Field Club and the West Penn Golf Association was in pursuit of its first-ever championship in it.

“Mr. Yerger (the Am’s co-chairman) spoke to our team before the final round and said that if we won, the player with the lowest score would get a spot at Sunnehanna,” he said. “I played well in that final round and we won. It was awesome.”

Jackson just completed his collegiate career at Notre Dame, where he was able to help fellow Western Pennsylvanian Rocco Salvitti acclimate to college life and golf in his first year at ND.

“It’s been great. We had a very competitive team. We made it to the NCAAs as a team and I was fortunate to be able to room with Rocco when we traveled,” Jackson said. “We watched Penguins games, talked about all the Pittsburgh stuff. It really was fun.”

Salvitti is one of three first-timers from the WPGA at Sunnehanna this week, joining J.F. Aber Lafferty in the category.

“It’s just awesome to be here,” he said. “I’ve played here maybe 15-20 times over the years, but I know things will be a little different in the event. My expectation coming in is to win. My strategy? Outsmart everybody. You must play smart around here, especially on these greens.”

J.F. Aber, son of long-time Allegheny Country Club golf professional John Aber, was thrilled to get his invitation to Sunnehanna, of course.

“Every single hole up there is amazing,” he said. “You have to be 100 percent focused on every shot, especially into those greens. It’s a mental grind, for sure. I’ve been doing a lot of short game work.”

He just recently graduated from Wittenberg University and will attend Marshall University where he’ll be in a two-year Masters program with his goal being playing professional golf.

Meyer will be playing in his fourth Am and this will be the first time he didn’t have to qualify.

“As I’ve been every time, I’m excited to be here and to be able to compete,” he said. “I played well in my final year of college (at High Point University in North Carolina where he graduated with two degrees.) The key here this week is being able to know where to miss it. If you hit in certain places, you can end up in an even worse place on your next shot. You have to keep the ball below the hole and not worry so much about birdies. Birdies will come on the birdie holes.”

Lafferty grew up in Hollidaysburg and began caddying at Sunnehanna at age 14. Included in those bag-toting experience was getting bags in the Am. He’s played there numerous times and knows the course better than anybody in the field.

But, teeing it up against 101 other players there is something he’ll be doing for the first time.

“It’s awesome to have been invited,” he said. “I come to the tournament with one expectation: Have fun, have a great time. “Obviously, playing there as a kid when I was in high school, then getting the chance to be invited, I just feel very lucky. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Unlike anyone else in the field, golf is not Lafferty’s only focus.

He’s a professional hockey player. Yep, a guy who grinds over a sharp-breaking 10-foot putt also grinds over ways to fire pucks past National Hockey League goaltenders.

In 289 games, Lafferty has scored 36 goals, 47 assists for 83 points. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL draft. He’s also played for Chicago, Toronto and last year for Vancouver.

“When I got traded for the first time (to Chicago), it was a bit of a shock to the system,” he admitted. “But it’s a business and you come to realize that trades are always possible. And many times, the trade isn’t necessarily about your performance. There are all kinds of things that go on behind the scenes that people don’t know about.”

He’ll become a free agent in a couple weeks and will be looking for a new workplace.

But he has other things to tend to before that.

Instead of worrying about the curve on his hockey stick, for the next four days, the 29-year-old will be trying to figure out those devilish curves, breaks and slopes at the Sunnehanna Amateur.

About the WPGA
Founded in 1899, the Western Pennsylvania Golf Association is the steward of amateur golf in the region. Started by five Member Clubs, the association now has nearly 200 Member Clubs and 34,000 members. The WPGA conducts 14 individual competitions and 10 team events, and administers the WPGA Scholarship Fund and Western Pennsylvania Golf Hall of Fame.