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It was early November, on the sun-blessed California coast, with my college buddies with whom I've played golf for 40 years. What could be better? Shooting an unheard of 74, that could be better.
First of all, let me set the scene. We'd gathered at the Pacific Grove Golf Links, one of those wonderful public courses that warms your heart, that reminds you that golf doesn't need to cost you your first born, let alone your wife.
Pacific Grove is funky, all right. It opens with a 120-yard par-3 off a mat. The second hole is also a par-3. The course barely stretches to 6,000 yards.
But out on the back nine, there are seven holes that take your breath away, through sand dunes, along the wave-crashing coast, dodging ice plant, judging the wind, a good test even on a calm day. In America, this is as close as you get to the town courses in Ireland.
The charge is $35. Tell me nearby Pebble Beach is 10 or 20 times the experience. Especially when you shoot 74.
I'm 63 years old. I tell everyone that I shot 85 when I was the fifth man on a five-man high-school golf team, and that I still shoot 85. In Sweden a few years ago, I was playing with two college students. One really hit the ball well. I asked him what his handicap was.
“I'm a 10,” he said, proudly. “I've been playing golf for only two years and I've gone from a 24 to a 10.”
Then, predictably, he asked me how long I had played. “Forty-five years,” I said. He didn't know what to say, but the look on his face said everything. After all that time wouldn't you be better, he asked without really asking. To be truthful, I've always wondered how well I'd play the piano now if I'd have put the time into it I've put into golf.
Oh, well. So on a good day I'd shot 85 at Pacific Grove. I'd been there last summer and shot 89, but my back was bothering me then and now I felt fine. My handicap index was 13.0. My average score for a round was 87-something. But I was making a little different move, and for the umpteenth time hoped I'd uncovered the secret. I'd taken enough practice swings in the bedroom in front of my wife's full-length mirror to feel something was going on.
Since attending a two-day short-game school taught by former Washington State Open champion Todd Erwin, my sand play and chipping had improved greatly. I was starting to make short putts by hitting the top half of the ball and making a more aggressive move to the hole. But could I put the ball in the fairway? At Pacific Grove, as short as it might be, it is fairway or ice plant.
When I play my goal is never to break 80. When I do it seems almost accidental. Two years ago I shot 78 at the very fine course in Salmon Arm, B.C., Canada. I might break 40 for nine holes, but doing it again on the same day is a lot to ask, especially when your drives barely fly 200 yards.
Pacific Grove is only a par-70. That helps. Because they were demolishing the old clubhouse, we played the back nine first, heading out toward the ocean. I missed the first two greens, none of my shots particularly inspiring, but I got up-and-down for pars. When I duck-hooked my tee shot into the ice plant on the par-5 12th, it was, well, here I go again.
Using my head for a change, I knocked the ball out of the ice plant with a 9-iron en route to a good bogey. Still, breaking 90 seemed more possible than breaking 80. As it turned out, I started making good swings, staying firmly over the ball instead of swaying, as I'd done for decades, and following through no matter what.
At the same time, my short game was working. As the round finished, I had gotten up-and-down seven times. I'd made two birdies, and no double bogeys, hitting nine greens along the way. The key to shooting a low score is obviously no doubles and no three-putts.
On the final hole, a tough, 215-yard par-3, I hit my driver – I told you I don't hit it too far – to within 10 feet. I missed the putt, but I'd finished strong. I'd shot 74.
On my extended stay in California, I continued to play well. I shot 86 the next day, but the next week had a 79 and then, inexplicably, another 74, on another par-70 course, Spring Valley in Milpitas, that measured less than 6,000 yards.
Again, two birdies and no doubles. I had one three-putt and actually struck the ball better than I had at Pacific Grove. The only sorry footnote was that I had bogeyed the final two holes.
Obviously, with my aging compatriots, replete with bad backs and fixed incomes, we'd picked easy, short and inexpensive courses. In my opinion, the world needs more straightforward $35 tracks and fewer Jack Nicklaus signature courses.
Picking the right tees is so important, not only if you want to score, but if you want to enjoy the round. You end up playing the course the way the architect designed it – the fairway bunkers actually reachable, the par 3s actually hit-able, the rounds filled with possibilities rather than one more desperate 3-wood shot to the green.
And a chance to shoot 74.
Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He was to cover five Olympics all together – Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens – before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine continues to write a weekly column for the Seattle Times while playing golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association’s Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs out-number the people.
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