'What if ... ?' leads to inaugural Commander-in-Chief's Cup

Air Force, Army, Navy are set to renew rivalries and build a legacy event, April 17-18 at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Virginia

If not for a football tradition dating to 1890, chances are that the upcoming Commander-in-Chief's Cup likely would have remained an ungerminated goal ambitious no more in thought. 

The inaugural, reimagined version of the golf tournament, to be played at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Virginia, April 17-18, will feature three U.S. Department of Defense academies — Military, Naval and Air Force — as they will lock horns over 54 holes for bragging rights as the holder of a newly minted Commander-in-Chief's Cup.

All because a golf advocate had been watching the annual December Army-Navy football game several years ago.

As Jeff Renzulli absorbed the contest, a revelation struck him like a lightning bolt during the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy presentation.

In preparation for the inaugural Commander-in-Chief's Cup, the coaches from the Air Force, Army and Navy have had their respective players doing a bit of reconnaissance — reviewing satellite images, yardage books and hole-by-hole looks of Robert Trent Jones Golf Club. Pictured are the 13th green, right, and 14th tee.

He thought, "Does each academy golf team play in an interservice event, and if not, could there be one, and what would it take?" The short answers were: not anymore, quite possibly and a dedicated network that could pull it off. 

Renzulli, chief counsel at the Buffalo Groupe, started working the phones before being put in touch with longtime PGA Tour pro Billy Hurley III, among others, through mutual friend Jim Bruyette. Hurley, a 2004 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, mentioned there had been the interservice Service Academy Classic that ran from 1993-2012 but then petered out. Yet he was receptive to the new idea.

"I shared with Jeff that [the Service Academy Classic] fizzled, but basically because some of the tournament operators and generals got older and no one really took it on after that," says Hurley, who won the individual title in 2003.

Soon, Callaway director of national accounts Rich Berglund and Trey Owen, a former Army West Point golfer (1990-94) and United States Military Academy graduate, joined the conversations. 

Momentum became their partner. Renzulli, a member at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Virginia, sold the board on hosting the event. 

Thoughts of raising just enough money to pay for everything segued into more grandiose intentions. Maybe this had legs to become an annual event with sponsorships. In doing so, why not develop the competition with a PGA Tour feel to it, where every tournament culminated in a special, unforgettable experience. 

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Berglund says it was a no-brainer and Callaway jumped on board as part of a two-year deal. Callaway will cover substantial expenses. 

"We're trying to honor these young men, who are serving the country, trying to play a Division I sport and do all their classes," Berglund says. "I don't want to disrespect any clubs in any way, and I'm not trying to compare any clubs, but we would love to have it at iconic clubs, where the players will say 'Can you believe so-and-so is hosting this event?'"

Since Hurley had experience hosting his annual fundraising BH3 and the Brave Tournament, he suggested creating a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organization. Thus, the Service Academies Golf Foundation (SAGF) came into existence. The SAGF will host the events, with the Buffalo Groupe hired to operate them. Berglund, Bruyette, Hurley, Owen and Renzulli comprise the SAGF board. 

However optimistic the planners were about getting the tournament afloat, there was a potential dealbreaker. Each academy needed to agree to participate. Turned out the worry was for naught. 

"I think it's exciting to have a standalone special event where it's all service academy players," says Army West Point coach Chad Bagley, in his sixth year. "I really like that this idea got rejuvenated, and now we'll set something in place where if you come to one of the service academies, you get to play in a special event against the other two. That's what we need and what we want."

Says first-year Naval Academy coach Jimmy Stobs: "I think it's wonderful we'll have this tremendous event for these young men who do so much in the classroom, on the golf course and, of course, for our country. To recognize them with a first-class event is outstanding. There was no hesitation on our part."

The only outlier, if it can be called that, was the Air Force Academy being based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. For Army and Navy, both have relatively short bus rides to get to RTJ. The haul would be harder on Air Force.  

2016 Quicken Loans National
During his collegiate days at the Naval Academy, Billy Hurley III played in the Service Academy Classic, which also included Air Force, Army and the Merchant Marines. Hurley won the 2003 title and now sits on the Service Academies Golf Foundation board that oversee the Commander-in-Chief's Cup.

"For us, it was a no-brainer," says second-year Air Force coach Tyler Goulding. "We just needed to know when and where, and we would be there. We would just need to look at the schedule. We were all in right away. 

"We were always a yes, the three of us. I know Army-Navy might have been a little more hesitant than us because they have their Army-Navy match every year."

To meet expenditures, the SAGF board brainstormed a model to offset costs and ensure each academy could walk away with a generous contribution. Besides the Callaway sponsorship, the SAGF sold spots to play in the collegiate-amateur event the day before the two-day tournament,

The 18-hole shamble will feature 24 groups, each consisting of three amateurs and a service academy player. All the spots quickly sold out via word of mouth.

"Given this experience that brings the academies together, it is kind of a joint deal and we have a lot of retired generals and admirals playing in the collegiate amateur event," Hurley says. "It's a chance for the cadets and midshipmen to interact with them. The event can also connect those young adults with the more seasoned executives, some of whom may have served in the military, or didn't but have an affinity for the military."

To that point, as a three-year letter-winner for Army West Point as a player, Bagley hasn't forgotten his experience at the 1993 Tri-Service Classic (before renamed the Service Academy Classic). He fondly recalled a practice round with legendary Heisman Trophy winner Glenn Davis.

With limited practice rounds, the college-amateur gathering will benefit service academy participants as they ingest the layout during the makeshift competition. All three coaches have had their players reviewing satellite images, yardage books and hole-by-hole looks of RTJ. Bagley says Army West Point has a senior who has played the course multiple times, sharing information with the team. 

More than anything, Stobs plans on employing a conservative approach. It's a tournament for bragging rights, sure, but he wants his squad to look at it methodically. 

"Unlike some other sports where you can actually grab and tackle and foul, we don't do that," he says. "We're playing the golf course, so we're looking at the golf course as the opponent and obviously to beat West Point and Air Force. You have to take care of the golf course and make sure you shoot the lowest scores."

To kick off the event, Berglund's son, Todd, was brought into the fold. As an Air Force pilot and a past player on the team, Todd Berglund organized a fly over to mark the shotgun start.

Byron Nelson 2019
The rivalries among the three service academies run deep as Billy Hurley III's yardage book cover can attest. Hurley played collegiately at the Naval Academy.

"It's going to be a four-plane F-35 flyover and will be the most unique shotgun start in the history of golf, I think," says Rich Berglund laughing. 

All in all, the rivalry alone should be enough to make the Commander-in-Chief's Cup intense. It's naturally baked into the recipe, of course. 

For the SAGF, it plans on examining the first run as it explores future possibilities. Initially, when conceived a couple years ago, the goal was to get everyone aligned on a date. The event made sense this spring. However, it's likely to shift to the fall in 2024 to accommodate schedules, according to Hurley. That said, Berglund and Hurley both added that without Renzulli's overall contributions, reviving the event would never have happened. 

The next step is to take the tournament to iconic courses and hold it to a high standard. Goulding sees success as the tournament growing "or getting even bigger and better, and still going 10 to 15 years from now."

Hurley simply hopes the "cadets and midshipmen have a terrific time and they walk away saying it's the best event we've played in and we can't wait to do it again next time." 

In the meantime, Berglund added another layer to the big picture. Currently, the SAGF's top focus is on the golf service academies as the top benefactors.

"My hope is this event would be played long after I'm gone, long after this board is gone," he says. "It will serve as a reminder of how special these kids are and these service academies are to this country. 

"Along the way, if we can raise some money for other military-type charities, our foundation would grow large enough that we could do more nice things for others. If we can grow this to what we think it could be, we would like to do that."

Editor's note: The Buffalo Groupe owns and publishes The First Call.