If the sunny skies and rising thermometer of the last few days mean anything, the golf season might finally be here.

Everywhere you look, grass is starting to turn green, blossoms are bustin' to bloom, and golf courses and superintendents are busily preparing for the annual onslaught.

Related stories

"It's like sticking a thoroughbred in the gate at the Derby and there's no place for him to go," said Matt Shaffer, superintendent at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, referring to the desire by him and his fellow supers to get on with it.

The same analogy can be made for golfers, except for the thoroughbred part, at least for many of us.

Really, can it be only a week ago, after the Masters got us pumped up for the golf season, that Philadelphia woke up one morning to an inexcusable layer of snow and "wintry" mix?

Never mind that. It's gone. Ancient history. Now, it's time to lace up the Softspikes. Here is a look at the local landscape:

GAP team matches. For thousands of golfers in the area, other than the Masters, nothing signals the official start of the season like the Golf Association of Philadelphia's team matches.

Once the province of the private clubs - and only the private clubs - the team matches have grown in recent years to include 316 12-man teams from 127 of GAP's 135 member clubs and courses, two dozen of which are semi-private or daily-fee.

Played over three consecutive Sundays starting today at the courses of the competing clubs, the matches this year will involve a total of 3,744 golfers.

While most clubs field one or two teams, some of the larger clubs have four and five. (There are no women team members because the Women's Golf Association of Philadelphia has its own team matches.)

The team matches date back to 1896, when the Philadelphia Cricket Club beat Devon Golf Club, 22-12. The desire to continue and grow the matches is largely what led to the founding of GAP five months later in February 1897, making it the first regional golf association in the country.

While several other city and regional golf associations have some semblance of team matches, none boasts anything approaching the size and scope of GAP's.

Occasionally, golf associations that want to create or grow their own matches take a look at what GAP does, only to come away awed by the logistics of it all. Today, for example, 5,688 matches will be played at 127 courses. They will do it all again next Sunday and the Sunday after that.

"On the scale of it, this is unique to Philadelphia," said Mark Peterson, GAP's executive director.

Over the years, Huntingdon Valley Country Club has been the dominant club in the matches, with more than 30 victories and a couple of seven-year runs, most recently from 1970 to 1976. Huntingdon Valley also pulled off a three-peat from 1983 to 1985.

The current power is Tavistock Country Club in Haddonfield, home to a handful of the area's top amateurs, including Mike Tash, Jamie Slonis and Bill McGuinness. Last year, Tavistock completed a three-peat of its own, and it's a favorite again this year.

"What makes Tavistock strong is not just the three major winners they have. It's that they have 12 to 15 strong players," GAP's Peterson said. "You have to have that to be able to field a strong team over three weeks."

In other coming GAP events, the 103d Philadelphia Open Championship, one of the premier events on the local golf calendar, will be hosted this year (Aug. 6) by one of the premier clubs, Merion Golf Club.

This year, everything about the Open has been improved or expanded, from the purse ($25,000 to $40,000) to the size of the field (60 to 72) to the qualifying (all spots up for grabs, regardless of pro or amateur status).

GAP's other big event, the 107th Amateur Championship, will be at held June 11-13 and June 16 at Applebrook Golf Club and White Manor Country Club; match play is at Applebrook.

Course conditions. If Matt Shaffer, Merion's superintendent, is on the money, golf courses in the area are about a week away from being ablaze in color. It would be happening right now, he said, if not for the unseasonably chilly weather of the last week or so.

"Plants react to sun duration and temperature," Shaffer said. "The light duration is already here. As soon as it warms up, everything will explode - and . . . [this] week it's supposed to be in the 70s."

By the way, next time you see the superintendent at your course, tip your visor.

As Shaffer sees it, the Mid-Atlantic region, from Philadelphia down through Washington, boasts the very best supers in the business. Why? Because the ever-changing climate demands it. Bad supers get found out very quickly around here.

"They get driven out," said Shaffer, who once worked at Augusta National. "This is a tough place to grow grass. It's too cool for the warm-weather grasses and too warm for the cool-weather grasses."

Golf stores. If you haven't noticed, the once-bleak selection of golf equipment retailers and superstores has improved.

Besides the many smaller independently owned shops, there is Golfdom in the King of Prussia mall, which is upscale and well-stocked.

Golfsmith, the giant mail-order and retailer, which already had a storefront in Moorestown, plans to open a second store next month on Old Welsh Road in Willow Grove. Two major chains, the Sports Authority and Dick's, have improved their golf departments in the last couple of years.

But the biggest addition may well be Golf Galaxy's quiet expansion from one store in Devon to four locations scattered around the area: Mount Laurel; Christiana, Del.; and, last month, Langhorne. (Links to all retailers are on my blog, www.golfinq.blogspot.com.)

Local pros. If you've got a knee-high golfer in the family, mark your calendar: Play Golf America, May 12, at Wood's Golf Center, better known at Woody's, in Norristown. (Free lessons, demo clubs, contests, food, free admission.)

The Philadelphia Section PGA, which stages Play Golf America locally, is making a big push to improve and expand the event in its third year, from about 400 attendees at Hartefeld National last year to 1,000.

Many local pros are also licking their chops over their the upcoming Haverford Trust Co. Golf Classic, May 29 at Sunnybrook Golf Club.

The appeal of the Haverford event is that it boasts the fattest first-prize check all year, $32,500 from the total purse of $60,000.

Contact staff writer Joe Logan
at 215-854-5604
Read his recent work