Like many events, the Chappa Invitational Golf Tournament is more than a name.
And this year — as Westport celebrates the 50th anniversary of the town’s purchase of Longshore — is a good time to look back on the name (and the man) behind one of the top high school golf events in the country.
When over 80 Connecticut schools tee off at Longshore on Thursday, May 27 they’ll play in memory of a true — and now forgotten — legend. Here’s what they (and, these days, too many Westporters) don’t know about Mike Chappa.
A lifelong resident of town, Chappa graduated from Staples in 1927. He captained the football and basketball teams, and played baseball — and is still regarded as one of the most all-around Wrecker athletes ever.
At Georgetown University he earned All-American football status for his aggressive 2-way play — as both an offensive and defensive end.
Returning to Staples after World War II as a social studies teacher, he coached football with Frank Dornfeld — another Georgetown All-American (tailback).
But Chappa’s great love was golf. He coached Staples’ linksmen from 1955 through ’68. His last year, the team was 15-0 and won the state championship. He was named Coach of the Year.
The following spring, he dropped dead of a massive heart attack — on the 16th green at Longshore.
Since 1970, the Chappa Invitational has been sponsored by Staples, the Longshore Men’s Golf Association and Westport Parks & Rec. The 2-man better ball event allows small schools to compete equally with the big boys.
It’s also the only high school golf event spectators are allowed — in fact, encouraged — to attend.
Over the years, they’ve seen some memorable moments. Once, an upstate team with a commanding lead left, to get home for an awards dinner. Another team tied them for 1st. Officials called the northerners, who turned around, drove back, jumped out of their car – and beat the other team in a 1-hole sudden death playoff.
Even more improbably, a few years ago Trinity Catholic had the lead, and left for their senior prom. Another team drew even. Staples coach Tom Owen called Trinity at the prom. Golfers came back — with their dates in gowns. Trinity lost on the 3rd hole of sudden death — perhaps they were distracted — but photos of the players and the dates on their course live on.
Fairfield’s J.J. Henry — now a PGA pro — was Connecticut’s top high school golfer in the early 1990s. He played in the Chappa each year — but had never won. In his senior year, he needed only a par at the 18th hole to take the title. He didn’t do it.
Westporter Carl Swanson — a captain on the 1966 team — remembers Chappa well. The coach didn’t say much — sometimes just pointing his arm to convey the message “keep it straight!” — though Chappa did once ask Swanson, when his concentration level lagged: “Carl, is it golf or women?”
Chappa, Swanson says, gained respect through is “quiet, authoritative demeanor — never scolding, never yelling. It was understood that you were to play well, and it was your responsibility to do so. But you also knew that he had your back.”
He was much louder on the football sidelines — “very emotional and excitable,” recalls former Wrecker Tom Allen — but football is supposed to be that way.
Swanson hopes to volunteer at this year’s Chappa tournament. He remembers the early years of Longshore as a public golf course, and to the man who put Staples golf on the high school map.
There is no more important “link” than that.