THE STARS? JEFF AND KENT.
THE STORY? DAVID AND GOLIATH WITH A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT ENDING.
THE SCENE? CALIFORNIA’S WORLD-FAMOUS GOLF COURSE.
Kent tucked his yellow and blue-striped shirt, an unfortunate souvenir from his round at Kapalua, into his pants.
‘I’ve got a ten o’clock tee-time with Jeff but I’d like to visit the driving range first.’
If Kent was nervous, there was no sign of it. The guy behind the counter smiled.
‘You’ve got to be Kent Nelson. Right?’
‘OK. Well, Jeff’s been out there hitting balls for the last two hours. I guess he felt he needed the practice. Big match.’
Kent grinned. In a lop-sided sort of way.
He knew. I knew. The guy behind the counter knew. Jeff was Jeff Minton, the pro at California’s La Costa. Kent was Kent Nelson, arguably the worst golfer in California. And the setting? The four hundred difficult acres of the sunshine state’s legendary La Costa Resort and Spa.
The door opened. Dressed in a white shirt, tie, sleeveless navy sweater and dress pants, Minton appeared. Imagine that scene in the classic Western. OK, that’s what was happening here.
‘Hi. You must be Kent.’
‘Er. . . Hi.’
‘Look, Kent, why don’t you go on down to the driving range. I’ll freshen up. Catch up with you in, say, twenty minutes?’
It was twenty long minutes for Kent. He spent them carefully assessing the situation, weaving the golf buggy towards the range. Finally, he muttered darkly.
He doesn’t seem too worried. He’s wearing a tie.’ I wasn’t entirely sure what the poor man was on about but I thought I’d let it go.
La Costa is a known commodity in the golf world. For thirty years it was home to the PGA Tour’s season-opening Mercedes Championships – from 1969, when Gary Player won the first Tournament of Champions held there, through 1998.
In 1999, the course played host to the first-ever World Golf Championships event The Accenture Match Play Championship, won by Jeff Maggert in a 38-hole match over Andrew Magee. It marked the first time the game’s top 64 players gathered in match-play competition.
The following year Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke emerged victorious over Tiger Woods, once again at La Costa. After being held in Melbourne, Australia, in 2001 the event returned to this Southern California course, when Kevin Sutherland won on the final hole over Scott McCarron.
So much for the history lesson. But the point I’m making is that La Costa’s rich history on the golf world’s stage gives even novice hackers the matchless opportunity to walk in the very footsteps of the greats – golfers like Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, Mark O’Meara, Phil Mickelson.
This, I guess, is what appealed to Kent. Master and duffer alike could play the same holes. And maybe the duffer hopes that, because they’ve followed in the footsteps of those great, that somehow, some of their stardust will rub off onto their own game. This is the great thing about golfing duffers. They dream.
Kent had heard the talk. A player is forced to use virtually every club in his bag when playing La Costa. And one or two pros’ comments weren’t too cheerful.
‘There’s not a lot of risk-reward here,’ PGA Tour player Justin Leonard admitted. ‘A lot of golf courses are more risk-reward, where guys are going to get away with things. Not here.’
Somehow we reached the range. Kent’s driving on the course might be a little erratic. In a buggy, it’s downright frightening. Once there, Kent pulled out a random selection of irons and woods and began his warm-up. He topped the first with his driver, threw it to one side. Picked up a four, five and then six iron and missed the ball with the lot of them. Finally, an eight-iron, swung at the ball, with the fury of a woodsman with attitude, only to carve the unhappy object at right angles across the stalls next door.
‘Any advice?’ Kent asked Minton when he arrived.
Minton looked blankly at him for a moment.
‘How about tennis?’
When the PGA Tour comes to La Costa, they play a combination of both the North and South Courses to form the championship 18. They begin on the back nine of the South Course, a course designed by Dick Wilson and Joe Lee described as tight and difficult.
Kent and Jeff started their round on the South Course’s 10th hole. It was a wonderful day for golf, even by Southern California standards. Punctuated by an occasional cloud or two, the cobalt sky was complemented by a balmy breeze, helping to tame the sun’s warmth.
‘Hit away. It’s a par-4.’
Minton was already putting an imagined drive some three hundred yards down the fairway, ‘It shouldn’t be that difficult, should it?’ Kent was twitching his driver, much as you would if you were about to use it to kill a snake.
Minton smiled, shaking his head.
‘It shouldn’t be. But it is.’
Kent smiled, weakly.
‘May the best man win.’
And slowly began to wrap his driver round his neck.
Wound as tight as a guitar string, Kent took a Mulligan on the first shot. He sliced his second; several shots later his approach landed in sand. On the other hand, Minton’s drive sailed slightly left. He parred the hole. Kent three-putted for an eight. As they left the green, he turned to Minton and said cheerfully, ‘I believe that good shots end up one foot from the hole and lucky shots go in.’
Minton appeared to think about this for a moment. It clearly wasn’t a saying that struck too much of a chord with the pro.
‘OK. One down.’
Jeff Minton, director of golf for La Costa Resort, is a former player on the Hogan Golf Tour and a Class A PGA Professional. He began playing the sport at age 13. ‘Every job I’ve ever had involved golf.’ His experience also includes a stint as head golf professional at the Lodge at Ventana Canyon in Tucson, Arizona.
At 6’3” Kent Nelson has an all-around sports background. He began his athletic career as quarterback of his high school football team and was a baseball pitcher. His real athletic prowess was on the basketball court, however, and in the 60s played well enough to shoot hoops against the world-renowned Harlem Globetrotters. But having natural athletic ability and being a natural golfer are as different as a hook and a slice. To make matters worse, he’s self-taught and that – compounded with a commitment to play regularly once every six months) – hasn’t been a formula that’s served this golfing dabbler too well.
However, back to the golf.
The first hole out of the way and not a bad eight to boot, Kent seemed more assured on the next. A par three.
Using his 6-iron – the same club selected by Tiger in tournament play to hit 220 yards on the hole – Kent’s ball traveled about one hundred and fifty yards.
‘That’s better. Good job,’ said Minton, a sentiment probably not shared by the birds now scrambling to get out of the tree Kent’s ball had thudded into.
Encouraged by this compliment, Kent seemed to stand taller. He adjusted his hat with a new-found confidence, returned to his cart and sped past the exclusive chateau-like dwellings perched on an adjacent hillside. He double-bogeyed the hole.
At five hundred and seven yards, the 12th hole, a par-5, challenged yet intrigued Kent, much as the Grand Canyon appealed to Evil Knievel. As it happened, the drive didn’t entirely match his enthusiasm and ended up between two tall trees. That said, skillful use of his 5-iron, nicknamed his ‘go-to’ club, put him safely back on the fairway. Minutes later, remarkably, he guided a 50-foot putt within two feet of the hole, only to rim the cup with the next shot, missing his chance to bogey the course’s second longest hole.
Undeterred, he marched on to the next tee. Of such stuff are heroes made.
The 12th wasn’t too bad. Kent didn’t win it but his ego was, by now, clearly on something of a roller coaster ride. Feeling mighty good on one hole, lousy on the next. On the 13th, sure, the drive went straight down the middle. Problem was it was parallel to the ground and no more than three inches above it. His second sought the rough with all the determination of a horse galloping back to the barn.
And his attempt to return to the fairway was near fatal. He hit the ball well enough but it went straight into a tree, ricocheted furiously backwards and very nearly took the head off this Babe Ruth wannabe slogger.
Still, never say die. The par-3 14th hole held great promise. It’s where Scott McCarron once holed out in one. And if Scott could do it, why not Kent? Scott had been playing two hundred and eleven yards from the gold tees. Kent was looking at a mere one hundred and seventy. Scott had used a 6-iron. Kent used a five wood. You know what’s coming. Scott scored one. Kent penned a five on his card.
But Minton, at least, hadn’t given up on Kent, despite every temptation to do so. As they walked to the 15th, Kent gloomily turned to the pro.
‘Have I lived up to my reputation as California’s worst golfer?’
‘Hell, no,’ said Minton. ‘I once played with a guy who made divots so big we could empty an entire bag of balls in every one of them.’
The last four holes at La Costa are known, with very good reason, as ‘the longest mile in golf.’ They form the backbone of the South Course lay-out and finish up in front of the imposing neo-Spanish clubhouse. They’re long and invariably straight into the ocean breeze. This was not a time for faint hearts.
Kent took a deep breath before teeing up on the 15th, a par-4 dogleg over a creek. His second shot put him dead center, around two hundred and fifty yards down the fairway. Although this is the spot where most professionals would expect to land from the tee, Kent was pleased. Too soon. He lobbed his third shot over the creek and into a bunker.
Minton shrugged his shoulders. ‘You’re on the beach.’ And then added thoughtfully that no one stays out of the sand very long at La Costa.
Kent’s greatest challenge was the 16th. He topped his drive just over fifty yards to the left, hit a second shot only ten yards further on and totally missed the ball on his third swing. After another three shots, Kent reached Jeff’s drive. Only to put his next one into sand again.
‘Spending a lot of time on the beach today, Kent’ said Minton. ‘There again, I guess we got the weather for it.’
The course’s 17th signature hole is a five hundred and twenty five yard par-5 off the white tees – five hundred and seventy five, if you’re playing with the big boys. Tiger Woods can reach the green with his second shot. Kent Nelson can’t. And his drive didn’t help.
‘How far do you think I hit?’
‘About one hundred and fifty,’ said Minton. ‘One hundred straight and fifty right.’
Several strokes and several slices later Kent’s ball reached Minton’s tee-shot. Buoyed by this success, albeit modest, Kent now faced a difficult water shot. Undeterred, he put a nasty hook on the ball, which meant it missed the green. But the good news is that it also missed the water. The look on his face was intended to tell the world that it was what he’s meant to do all along. Not that it mattered. Minton put his second on the edge of the green.
‘Kent, you’ve got army golf going for you,” said Minton. ‘Left, right, left, right, left, right.’
However, having clearly taken this metaphor to heart, Minton now adopted it on the 18th tee and carved his drive a farmyard mile off to the right.
‘Whoa, partner, I’ve been watching you too much.’
But, if Kent now entertained hopes of an unlikely scalp at last, they were sadly dashed as Minton played a huge return shot from the next-door fairway and finished up with a par. That’s what pro’s do but that was of small comfort to Kent, who ended up with a very creditable 5.
And that was that. The shoot-out over, the two men shook hands and, as they walked back towards their carts, I could hear Minton talking about ‘fundamentals. . . grip. . . posture. . . muscle memory.’ And Kent, unbelievably, was promising to practice every week. The best of friends. But then that’s what golf is really all about.
To Jeff Minton, thanks a bunch for taking part. You were terrific. And to Kent Nelson Dial, don’t worry. You might not be the best golfer in California. But from where I’m standing, you’re the best husband.