Gainesville pair advance to world best-ball final


Gainesville amateur golfers Jackie Ayers, left, and Tom Lapcevic team up to win a best-ball tournament at the Mercedes-Benz Dealer Championship National Finals in Maui, Hawaii.

BRAD McCLENNY/ Special to The Sun
Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 21, 2008 at 11:47 p.m.

What is the precedence for two complete strangers, who couldn’t seem to be more different, getting together on a golf course and accomplishing something great?

One is a 3-handicap, the other is a 19.

One if from Pennsylvania, the other is from Missouri.

One has been playing golf since before he was a teenager, the other didn’t start playing consistently until 2001.

Despite these differences, Gainesville residents Jackie Ayers and Tom Lapcevic were paired up for the Mercedes-Benz Dealer Championship National Finals in Maui, Hawaii, after being the lone qualifiers at Gainesville Country Club. Together, they beat 144 other teams on Jan. 14, got some shiny Tiffany silver trophies and earned the right to play in the Mercedes-Benz World Trophy Final in Stuttgart, Germany, this fall.

“I felt totally surprised, and it just kind of sank in my head, ‘I don’t believe this, but it’s for real.’” said Ayers, a 55-year-old from Southeast Missouri who plays at Ironwood Golf Course and came to Gainesville in 1978. “(My wife) was screaming. You couldn’t tell if she was playing in the tournament or if I was.”

At the qualifier, the two played a gross-net system, where the person with the best overall score (Lapcevic) would team up with the person with the best score minus his handicap (Ayers).

The pair never even met until they were on the bus on the way to the first round in Hawaii. But as it turned out, they had a lot in common.

“We just like a lot of the same things. Types of movies, similar sense of humor. Our wives were talking to each other about us, and every time one would say something, the other would say, ‘That’s the way he is,’” said Lapcevic, a 49-year-old from White Valley, Penn., who is now a teacher at Lawton Chiles Elementary. “It was really quite humorous. I mean it just kept going on and on, and it got silly at some points.”

The first two rounds of the event were played at the Royal Ka’anapali and Ka’anapali Kai courses with the top 20 teams moving on to the final round – played at the Plantation Course, site of the PGA Tour’s season-opening, winners-only Mercedes-Benz Championship.

The tournament’s style was best ball, meaning they’d count the score of whichever teammate shot the best hole. It proved to be a perfect system considering Lapcevic had won several prestigious amateur tournaments, and the only experience Ayers had before 2001 was a golf class he took in college.

“When I would blow up on a hole, Tom would par or birdie it, and vice-versa,” Ayers said. “But I actually wasn’t nervous going in because to be totally honest, I didn’t think we would end up winning.”

After the first two days, the pair performed well enough to play 18 more holes, shooting a 14-under-par and ending up in sixth place.

For the last day, all scores were wiped clean. And with a 7 under on the front nine and an 8 under on the back nine, winning seemed to be within reach for Ayers and Lapcevic.

“I started to realize midway through the round that we were playing some great golf, and we actually had a shot to win this,” Lapcevic said. “Jackie would ask me, ‘How far under are we?’ and I’d tell him, ‘Just keep playing. Don’t even worry about it.’”

That mystery carried over until the end, when Ayers and Lapcevic didn’t know if their final-round minus-15 was good enough to win until the late-night awards dinner. But as soon as they announced third place with a minus-12, Lapcevic knew the title was theirs.

“As soon as they announced third place and what the score was,” Lapcevic said, “I turned to Jackie and said, ‘We won.’”

Now, the two will step back into their everyday lives until they pair up again in late September. At the finals, they’ll face off against 24 other amateur teams from around the world in hopes of winning it all.

But they’ll have a new teammate.

The event features teams of three, and they’ll be joined by Palm Beach’s Mark Libowitz, who was the low medalist for the first two days of the Hawaii tournament with rounds of 70.

And just like Ayers and Lapcevic a few weeks back, Libowitz will be a perfect stranger.

“We’re in the same boat now as we were in Hawaii,” Lapcevic said. “We both just feel like winners for getting this far.”

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