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Best of Twin Cities, Decatur face on the links
Winding pathways lead golfers along wide open fairways lined with forrested areas and tall native grasses at Red Tail Run. (Herald & Review/Lyndsie Schlink)

DECATUR - The idea came about as a convergence of thoughts.

Everyone loves the Ryder Cup, when Europe clashes head-to-head with the United States. It has no equal when it comes to tension, drama and the gut-wrenching feel of patriotic pride. So why not our own version of the Ryder Cup?

There's a new Raymond Floyd Signature golf course in Decatur and Bloomington has an Arnold Palmer Signature course. Why not put them both on display?

Decatur has a contingent of talented golfers, men and women, amateurs and pros, young and not so young. So does Bloomington-Normal. Why not let them tangle for Central Illinois bragging rights?

Throw all those thoughts together and you have the inaugural Signature Cup golf challenge that will unfold this weekend at Red Tail Run on the south edge of Decatur.

Decatur's best against the best from Bloomington-Normal. Two days. Match play. Rumble at Red Tail.

To be honest, no one knows quite what to expect this weekend, except there's a general agreement that the potential is there for some honest-to-goodness fireworks.

On paper, Bloomington-Normal may have the better individual golfers, at least in terms of their honors won state-wide.

But how much of a factor will home course knowledge prove to be? And is there an edge that comes from a boisterous home-course gallery?

Those factors will be examined closely this weekend and will no doubt be talked about on Sunday afternoon, when Decatur Mayor Paul Osborne presents the Signature Cup trophy, which for the next year will remain in the pro shop at Red Tail Run if Decatur should prevail, or be proudly displayed at The Den at Fox Creek if Bloomington-Normal wins.

Decatur team captain Richie Hammel says everyone should remember one of golf's dependable axioms:

"The only thing predictable about golf is that it's unpredictable," said Hammel, who assembled the Decatur team with the help of co-captains Darryl Stock and Marilyn Dechert.

Hammel was a head pro in Decatur for 35 years. That's 13 at Scovill before serving for 22 years as the head pro at Faries Park.

Ironically, the Faries Park course was closed and sold to Archer Daniels Midland Co. in return for money used to buy the land on which the Red Tail Run course was built.

The course, which opened last spring, was designed by Hall of Famer Floyd and has proven to be a challenging layout, especially when played from the black tees, a distance of roughly 7,300 yards which the men will use this weekend.

Hammel has asked his team members to log as many practice rounds as they can on the course over the past few months, hoping they'll learn nuances that come and go with the changing winds.

"This golf course is one you have to play a little bit to know where to go and when to take a chance and when not to take a chance," Hammel said. "I'm hoping some of the little things our players have learned about it will help us."

The players believe local knowledge is more important than usual on Red Tail Run.

"It takes a while to learn where to hit it and where not to hit it," said Decatur team member Rod Maxwell, who won the Decatur City Amateur Championship last summer, just weeks after the course opened. "Knowing the course could be a big advantage for us. There's nothing like it in Bloomington or anywhere else for that matter, unless you want to go to Prairie Dunes in Kansas."

Dave White, a three-time city champ who finished runner-up to Maxwell in 2006, said the wild card at Red Tail Run is the wind, which can completely change a golfer's approach from day to day.

"You might hit a 3-wood off this tee one day, then hit an iron the next day," said White. "The wind can change everything."

A total of 36 holes will be played Saturday in two-player team events (four-ball and alternate shot) and 18 holes will be contested Sunday (match play singles).

For each of the three competitions, 12 golfers representing each community will be on the course. That's eight amateur men, two amateur women and two local professionals.

Each captain was permitted to choose 10 amateur men, three amateur women and two pros. Captain Hammel filled out his roster, but Captain Niepagen elected not to select an alternate woman and chose just one of the two available amateur men.

Niepagen, 60, who will not play in this event, is the most decorated golfer in the history of Bloomington-Normal city tournaments. He is a six-time winner of the City Championship. He captured the Medal Play title four times and the Two-Man Best Position crown five times. Not surprisingly, he was part of the first group of inductees into the Bloomington-Normal Golf Hall of Fame in 2002.

Niepagen is a former Illinois State golfer. His wife, Kathy, is Illinois Wesleyan's golf coach.

Hammel expects a fierce battle and says Decatur has picked the toughest possible opponent in Bloomington-Normal.

"We could have gone up against Champaign or Springfield and we wouldn't have faced a group as good as Bloomington-Normal," he said. "They've got some great golfers."

Next summer the Signature Cup shifts to The Den at Fox Creek, where Bloomington-Normal should enjoy the home course edge as well as a friendly gallery.

That's assuming either is a determining factor. The mysterious aspect of any inaugural event is that with no history to call upon, we just don't know.

Today

6:30 p.m. - Opening ceremonies at Hickory Point Golf Course during which both teams and sponsors will be introduced and captains will unveil their starting lineups for Saturday's first match. Event is by invitation only.

Saturday

At Red Tail Run

8 a.m. - Four Ball Competition. Two-player teams from each city compete head-to-head over 18 holes. Lineup will include four teams of amateur men, one team of amateur women and one team of local pros.

12:15 p.m. - Lunch. Served at Red Tail Run available for purchase by the public. Sandwiches, soft drinks and beer available. Captains announce lineups for afternoon matches.

1:15 p.m. - Alternate Shot Competition. Two-player teams from each city compete head-to-head over 18 holes. Lineup will include four teams of amateur men, one team of amateur women and one team of local pros.

Sunday

11 a.m. - Individual head-to-head match play. Eight matches involving amateur men. Two matches involving amateur women. Two matches involving local pros.

5 p.m. - Awards ceremony. Decatur Mayor Paul Osborne presents the inaugural Signature Cup traveling trophy.

NOTE: Admission is free for both days of Signature Cup play. Parking available at Red Tail Run both days with overflow parking at Rotary Park (shuttle service will be provided).

Course phone number: (217) 422-2211

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