March 29, 2004 - Strange Rounds (Part 1)

By: Jeff Shelley

During these first few days of spring most people are eager for the golf season to begin, particularly those in iced-up places where the game has become a distant memory. That's not the case for us folks in Seattle, where golf is generally a 12-month - albeit muddy - activity. Yet this has been one of the weirdest personal years in memory. Not that I haven't played golf, but because I've undergone a serious operation and been sick with a nasty flu/cold four frigging times, spending at least two of the past six months on the disabled list. Last night, while tossing and turning during another codein-cough-syrup night of restlessness, I recalled some bizarre rounds of golf. Here's one of them.

It happened at Spokane Country Club on a hot day in August 2002. A group of us Sand Point members went to the Lilac City to play our sister course, a fine championship track located in woodlands north of the city. Spokane CC has a long and storied history. Founded in 1898, the club is the Northwest's third-oldest - after Tacoma Country & Golf Club and Portland's Waverley Country Club, and is a founding member of the Pacific Northwest Golf Association (PNGA), one of the nation's oldest amateur golf bodies.

Fittingly, Spokane's course - completed in 1911, the current layout is the club's third - has hosted several important tournaments over the decades. Among them is the first-ever U.S. Women's Open in 1946 (won by Patty Berg) and the U.S. Junior Amateur. Notable golfers representing Spokane CC have included its first head professional, James Barnes, who designed the club's first nine holes at its present location. After leaving Spokane, Barnes won the inaugural PGA Championship in 1916 and the next one in 1919 (the three-year gap caused by World War I); the 1921 U.S. Open, beating Walter Hagen by nine strokes; and the 1925 British Open at Prestwick Club in Ayrshire, Scotland.

Other horses from Spokane's impressive stable include Al Mengert (long-time PGA Tour pro, U.S. Amateur finalist in 1952, U.S. Juniors champ in '46 and '47); Marvin "Bud" Ward (U.S. Amateur champ in 1939 and '41; Western Am winner in '40, '41 and '47; Walker Cupper in '38 and '47); Rod Funseth (great amateur and multiple Tour winner); Connie Guthrie (the first woman to earn a letter on Gonzaga's varsity golf team, and '84 and '86 U.S. Senior Women's Amateur champ); and Peggy Conley (Curtis Cup member in 1964 and '68, and LPGA Tour regular).

So it was not too surprising to learn that a prominent tournament would be held the very same day our motley group of Sand Pointers would be playing the course. The event was the PNGA Men's Amateur, our day coinciding with the finals being played by Brady Stockton of California and Arizona State, and Spokane native, Corey Prugh, then a member of the men's golf team at the University of Washington.

The first half of our eightsome teed off, with my group following. We were told by the pro shop to expect some interference from the galleries and maybe even the players during our round. The contestants were on the back side when we teed off, but it was expected they'd stop for lunch before beginning the second 18 of their 36-hole final match, thus causing us little trouble.

The first few holes were relatively unhurried and without incident, though we could hear cheering in the distance as Stockton and Prugh battled it out. But, too soon for our comfort, things got dicey. Instead of taking an extended lunch break as expected, the players decided to forge ahead, a ploy that soon put them right on our tails.

Our golfers - consisting of two men and two women in each foursome - were, overall, pretty fast players. But, as luck would have it, our slowest golfer was in the first group, so my quartet did a lot of hitting and waiting, peering over our shoulders in anticipation of the dust-swelling "tournament train" charging down upon us.

My game quickly went into the toilet. Sue, a good player and Sand Point's current women's club champion, and I tried to hasten our group along. It was flat-out odd playing golf that day, scurrying to keep ahead of the storm of finalists, fans and officials. We'd drive the carts up to a tee, hit our shots, then bolt after them as spectators along the fairways and around the greens gazed at us, asking, "Who the hell are those people? They're not part of the tournament."

I shanked a few over the greens - not unusual with my short game, yelling "Fore!" at people who should know better than to be standing there. The whole experience was surreal, reminiscent of a late afternoon in the 1960s when my friends and I got locked into the Woodland Park Zoo after we had downed some psychedelic substances. The disembodied voice over the PA announced, "The zoo is closing, please make your way to the exits." When we got there, my pals and 50 other people found the doors locked tight. We scrambled around the zoo looking for ways out, finally reaching an open gate before nightfall, but not before being scared out of our wits by howling monkeys, roaring lions, and some otherworldly sounds.

In both instances, the tables were turned. Instead of being the predator, we became the prey. Now I know what a rabbit in the open field must feel like.

With about four holes to go, an official in a cart came motoring up and told us to step up the pace as the boys were only a hole behind and closing fast. We pointed ahead and asked him to relay that message to the group in front of us. Somehow, the word got through and we managed to complete the final holes in decent time before the "real" golfers did the same. I actually was quite proud of myself, squeezing off a nice approach to Spokane's short, uphill 18th before a real-life tournament gallery.

For the record, Stockton and Prugh tied after 36 holes. Stockton won the 101st PNGA Men's Amateur on the 37th hole with a birdie, while us Sand Pointers sucked down cold ones in the clubhouse, blessedly apart from the action.