Sports

Old-time events help shape all-time greats

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Before they became among the best their sports had ever seen, Pete Sampras and Tiger Woods were Southern California teenagers performing in old, venerable tournaments that had been around since the turn of the 20th century.

Before the first Rose Bowl was played in Pasadena in 1902, tennis was played in Ojai. Before the first Santa Anita Handicap was run in 1935, golf was played at country clubs all around Los Angeles. And before the CIF State track meet started in 1915, Carpinteria played host to hosted its first track meet. Three of the oldest events in Southern California - the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament, the Southern California Golf Assn. Amateur Championships, and the Russell Cup Track Meet - remain vibrant and thriving competitions after all these years.

Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament

First tournament: 1896

In 2000, Ojai Valley Tennis Club officials were scrambling to find names of players who had competed in Ojai and gone on to win a singles or doubles championship in a Grand Slam tournament. The names of those players would be displayed on a Wall of Fame at the entrance to Libbey Park, site of the original Ojai tournament started in 1896 by William Thacher.

Most knew the stories of Bill Tilden sleeping under the Ojai oak trees, of Jack Kramer snacking on cookies and orange juice after losing all his money in an all-night poker game, of a pig-tailed Tracy Austin winning the women's open division at 14, three months before becoming one of the youngest players to compete at Wimbledon.

But no one remembered anything about the game's all-time winningest player, Pete Sampras, playing Ojai. Sampras did play at Ojai and was one of 79 honored during that year's 100th tournament celebration. Sampras won 14 Grand Slam titles during his career, but played Ojai only as a junior.

The last weekend in April, more than 1,600 players in 37 divisions will make the trek to the small town 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles to play in the nation's oldest tournament held at one location.

"The intimate setting, the 500 volunteers. The whole community comes out for tennis in Ojai," said tournament official Sam Eaton.

"That's what makes Ojai so great. We've been doing the same thing for 106 years. Everybody knows that things don't change at Ojai."

Southern California Golf Assn. Amateur Championships

First tournament: 1900

There's a constant reminder hanging on the wall at the Hacienda Golf Club pro shop of the July day in 1994 when an 18-year-old Tiger Woods broke the Southern California Golf Assn. Amateur Championship record for low score in a round.

Andy Thuney, the head professional at Hacienda, sees Woods' signed scorecard every day he works.

"It's right there on the wall," said Thuney, who watched Woods shoot a 62 to shatter the course record by four strokes and break the tournament record by two.

"There was a small gallery watching him," Thuney said. "He hit some incredible shots.

"He was a phenom then just like he's a phenom now."

That was the only time the Cypress native - who has won 10 major championships as a professional - would play the tournament the SCGA bills as the "nation's second oldest, continuously contested amateur golf championship."

Begun in 1900, a year after a similar tournament in Utah, the SCGA Amateur has named a champion each year for the last 106 years.

"It's just a great tournament with a lot of history," said Bob Thomas, senior director of communications for the SCGA.

"We've had some top players who have won it, but even others who haven't, including guys like Craig Stadler, Corey Pavin, Scott Simpson and Mark O'Meara who all have won major championships as professionals."

Carpinteria's Russell Cup Track Meet

First meet: 1914

Van Latham has not been able to find an older high school track meet in California than Carpinteria High's Russell Cup. The Russell Cup predates the California CIF State meet by one year. "We'll claim it as the oldest until we're proven wrong," said Latham, the longtime Carpinteria track and field coach and Russell Cup meet director.

In 1913, Carpinteria Principal Francis Figg-Hoblyn was looking for something more for his students besides the standard foot races held at the end of each school year. He invited five schools to compete in a track meet and the next year a cup was donated by local athletic enthusiast Howland Shaw Russell (marking 1914 officially as the first year of the meet). It was decided then that a silver cup donated by Russell would be given to the school that won the track meet three times.

Before World War I, the Russell Cup attracted the best track and field programs around with large, powerhouse schools such as Long Beach Wilson, Compton and Glendale competing. After World War II, the meet contracted and in recent years has served as a small-school meet. Six future Olympians have competed in the Russell Cup, including Mike Larrabee of Ventura High, a two-time gold-medal winning sprinter from the 1964 Tokyo Games, and Dave Laut of Oxnard Santa Clara, a shotput bronze medalist in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Allyson Felix, a silver medalist in the 200 meters at the 2004 Athens Olympics, starred in the Russell Cup while attending L.A. Baptist.

The Russell Cup was an all-male event until 1960. This year's April 15 meet will showcase the top small school talent from around the state.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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