The Earl Invitational: A Fond Look Back at an Avalon Institution
By Mike Kern
It all began innocuously enough, as a means for a group of young friends united in large measure by their rather unique profession to spend an entire day together playing miniature golf and drinking, in no particular order. Over the subsequent decade, the event would evolve into a tradition unlike many others, at least until the realities of grown-up life finally got in the way and eventually caused it to go away. Things happen. The world continues to spin. Still, the snapshots they fondly share from those bygone summer times will forever remain a vivid part of them.
Welcome to the Earl Invitational. Named for its founder/creator/inspirational character, Joe Garrison – who is better known as Earl, for reasons that he will only acknowledge might tend to incriminate him if made public. With an accompanying laugh, of course. Back then, he was a bartender in Avalon. For the past 23 years or so, he’s delivered the mail there.
“When you’re a young guy, it made more sense to be going to bed at 6 instead of getting up at 6,” Garrison, who’s now 62, was saying recently. “I might be dead today if I hadn’t [switched jobs]. But I might have been retired if I’d kept doing it. So, I could kick myself in the [butt], too.”
Fred Sylvester (aka Dr. Fish)
The bartenders used to go drinking after work and often would often end up at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House for breakfast. As fate would have it, next door there was a miniature golf course – which, like a lot of things from that era, is no longer around and hasn’t been for some time. So naturally, after they finished eating, they teed it up. “For friendly bets,” Garrison duly notes. “We might go to two or three courses a day. That’s how it got going. Then we talked about doing something bigger.”
In 1980, the inaugural year, he did the organizing. Which included handing out invitations to patrons at The Princeton, where he was working.
Greg Meredith (aka The Mayor)
“People WANTED to play,” Garrison recalls. “After the first couple, the thing ran itself. But it got pretty involved. At one point, we went out to a county park and had a barbecue with live entertainment or a DJ. It was a good day. We tried to keep it in late August, a good way to end the season. Back then the shore was different, you know. After like the second one a local cop said we might want to think about getting buses. I mean, it was part pub crawl. We’d hit all the bars in between. So, we took his advice. One year we had three buses. It was crazy.
“It got to where we had to stagger groups. Everyone wanted to be together. It was tougher to work out. So, we cut it back, didn’t push it as much.”
We should mention that in the process they raised money for a local charity, Helen L. Diller Vacation Home for Blind Children. They even got sponsors. Near the end, another bartender actually took over the handling of details. Another addition to the event was the Ugliest Bartender Contest. This was initiated by Jim Madden to benefit those suffering from M.S.
“It had run its course, I guess,” says Greg Meredith, a regular participant who is still an Avalon bartender, affectionately called “The Mayor.” “When you’re that age, you try to get away with crap. They were glory days. But we knew how to pace ourselves. Playing mini golf was a way to kill an hour or two. I was the champ in ’83 and ’84. In between beers. I miss being that young …
“We realized we shouldn’t be driving. It was a party all day. It got that big. I have a green jacket, which was my prize for winning. Like the Masters. Only this was like a windbreaker, with the Earl Invitational logo on it: two putters crisscrossed, with a ball in between and some flowers. It doesn’t fit anymore. I found it last year and tried it on to see how it looked …
“We all got married and had kids. Things changed. We used to hit balls off the roof [of the course in Stone Harbor]. We did some stupid stuff. We had a champagne breakfast. We’d polish through three cases. It was maybe $1.99 a bottle. Nothing but the best for us.”
As far as Earl was concerned, it was much more about the bonding than the competition. Which is why the figurine on the winning trophy was a horse’s butt.
“Hell, no,” Garrison says, when asked if he was any good. “If you’re that serious about that kind of thing, then you are a horse’s [butt]. We did have guys who tried.”
He does admit to playing some occasional real golf, mostly in scrambles, where his lone goal is to help his team out by making a few putts. It’s the only way he can contribute – other than supplying some laughs.
“Looking back, we probably could have done it a lot better,” Garrison says. “We had to clean it up a little. But it was all in good fun. One time we made a bus trip to see a Phillies game, and we stopped and played on the ride up. They had a sign out that said, ‘Welcome Earl Invitational.’ It was the highlight of the summer. People planned around it. We even got women to be caddies, keep score and run beer for us. Spice things up. I know it hasn’t been forgotten. It was addicting. I still see stuff on Facebook or whatever, saying what a blast it was.”
There’s been talk of maybe bringing it back, even if just as a one-time revival. If they do, count Michael Grozier in – even though he now lives on the West Coast, where his career path has taken him as an executive in the entertainment business. The Bucks County native (and childhood friend of Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright) doesn’t get back here as much as he’d like, but that’s an incentive he couldn’t pass up.
“We were just kids in college,” Grozier says. “Earl was a guy a lot of us looked up to, even though he wasn’t that much older than us. At the time, his idea was really progressive. He brought hundreds of people together, gave them something to do for a day. It worked. It was the ’80s. Avalon was an inexpensive summer escape. It had all these little houses that a bunch of kids could rent and pack in. Work the bars, the clubs, the beach. And then go to the bars, the clubs, the beach. Now there’s million-dollar homes. It’s about property values and how big is my house. It’s more PC, less tolerant. It was a much more innocent time.
“I have some really good feelings about it. They’re just a little blurry. The mythology of the tournament is probably more than what I can ever remember. I can understand why people got afraid of it. But we could party it up, laugh at each other and at ourselves, which I think is a lost art these days. Then you’d try to hit a golf ball through a clown’s mouth.
“Earl did a great job. I just think he ran out of gas. It was a lot of work. It was almost like you had to top yourself each year. It got to be a bit much. But I’ll bet 90 percent of those people are still around. I’m not sure anyone else could’ve made it happen. It was an epic adventure, something you looked forward to. I know practice rounds might have included a 12-pack of beer.
“It was absolutely hilarious,” he concludes. “It was a shore thing. The common denominator was our ability to pretty much laugh our way through it.”
All these years later, they continue to do so. Funny how that works, when the images are indelible.
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