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October 23, 2014

THE VIEW FROM 4 Major local golf tournament is about winning for some, socializing for most

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Posted: Sunday, July 13, 2014 1:09 am | Updated: 1:54 am, Sun Jul 13, 2014.

A big part of golf, Jake Spott says, is just dealing with the disappointment.

"It's like life," says Spott, the golf pro at Anniston Country Club. "No matter how good you are, there's always frustration that you didn't do better."

It's 7 a.m. Friday, and Spott, in a golf cart, has just circled the fourth hole on the country club's golf course with the watchful mood of a mall security guard on a Segway. Groundskeeper Tim Littlejohn is here, crouching to spray white paint into the fresh golf hole he just drilled into the grass. Littlejohn is out here nearly every workday, around sunup, changing the pins on the green.

But this particular Friday isn't a normal day. In 30 minutes, golfers will tee up for the first day of the Sunny King Classic, a three-day charity golf tournament that, for local fans of the sport, is like the prom and the football postseason rolled into one.

Three-hundred eighty golfers have paid $325 a head for a chance, however remote, to win the tournament. They're split into three groups. Some are playing at Silver Lakes, on U.S. 431 between Wellington and Glencoe, while others are at Cider Ridge in Oxford.

And 124 are here at Anniston Country Club, an 18-hole course bordered on one side by a mountain and on two sides by the grid-patterned streets of Anniston's older neighborhoods. On a map, the course looks like something gerrymandered, a serrated triangle attached to a pair of beetle-like pincers. On the ground, it's acre after acre of rolling hills, towered over by thick, aged pines, just blocks from the six lanes of Quintard Avenue.

The country club's Friday golfers are in Flights Three and Four, Spott says, which puts them below the star players, who know they have a chance at the trophy, and above the novices.

Those mid-level players have a choice to make. Are they here just to play, or to win?

"These guys are competitive to a certain point," Spott said. "They're the average or above average golfers. But socialization it also a big reason why they're here."

Beer or victory

That decision is complicated by the four women who are stationed just off the green at the fourth hole.

Under the shade of an oak, sisters Maggie Burn Owens and Krissy Burn Neu, volunteers at the event for the past 15 years, keep a cooler full of Powerade, Coke and Dr Pepper.

There's also a keg of beer. It's one of the privileges that comes with the $325 entry fee: players can start drinking as early as the first tee time, 7:30 a.m., with nary a raised eyebrow from their peers. The Burn sisters' drink stand is the first one on the course.

"They'll be hitting us all day," Neu predicted before the first tee time.

Parked on the other side of the green are Africa Bell and Rachel Lotfi, workers for Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Northeast Alabama, who have volunteered as "hole watchers." Both say they know little about golf, but they do know that if they both see a player get a hole-in-one, that player wins a prize.

"I don't even know what the prize is," Lotfi confessed while setting up a folding chair by the green.

The players know. At the tee box for the fourth hole, shining like Willy Wonka's golden ticket, sits a gunmetal-gray Acura ILX. A sign near the car says a hole-in-one golfer will get $20,000 toward a new car. That would buy only about two-thirds of the ILX, but it's enough to taunt players all day.

Or to haunt them, which may be the case for David Bautista, the first man on the tournament's tee-off roster. Just after 8 a.m., he fires off a shot that lands square on the green, rolling up to rest about 8 inches short of the hole.

"You guys couldn't just roll it in?" he teases Bell and Lofti as he approaches the green. He finishes the hole 1-under-par and no richer, but he doesn't seem frustrated.

"I'm glad I came as close as I did," Bautista said.

Against the sky

For the rest of the day, no one quite matches Bautista's near-feat, though dozens manage to land their drive on the green. Their shots come in like hailstones, dropping with a flat slap onto the green. One tiny bounce and then they seem to almost stick to the grass.

It's a little unnerving for the hole-watchers, who can't see the incoming balls until just before they land.

"You lose it against the sky," Lotfi said.

Sky usually isn't the problem, however. When Brad Burgess tees off, his ball is clearly visible, and audible, as it crashes into a grove of trees and lands in rocks on the far side of the green. Walking away, he chops at the air with his club.

By the time he reaches the green, Burgess has grown more philosophical. He says he just hoped to "survive"  — hitting at par or under — and enjoy the camaraderie.

"I'm dressed for success," jokes Burgess, who wears a day-glo yellow shirt and pants with a psychedelic black-and-yellow swirl.

Minus the $20,000 challenge, the fourth hole might not look so tough. Set atop a hill, the tee box offers a commanding view of the course and, beyond, the two-story houses of Anniston's upper class. Golfers labor silently all around, like bees working a field of dandelions. The sweeping view grants the viewer a lordly feeling, a sense that one could simply toss the ball to the green.

From the green, the shot looks longer. That view becomes apparent to one golfer, clad old-school in white shoes and dark slacks, who seems very serious as he waves off the golf cart and walks the length of the fairway. The white-shoe golfer lands on the green in two shots and makes a few failed putts before pocketing the ball sheepishly.

"I'm just here to drink the beer," he shouts to the hole-watchers. The white-shoe golfer says he doesn’t want his name in the paper.

"Me and the Baptists, you know," he says.

Maybe next year

Spott, the golf pro, says that by the end of the course, many of the mid-level players have decided whether they're there to socialize or compete. Their score plays a big role in that — but the decision usually emerges later than the fourth hole.

"If they're in that much trouble where you were, they're having a bad day," he says.

Still, many golfers begin hedging their bets as early as the fourth hole. Most who talk to The Star say they're there for both the companionship and to compete. Many cite personal goals that aren't too impressive to outsiders.

"We're just trying not to come in last in our flight," says Greg Smith. He'll end the day 4-over-par.

Smith takes exception to the idea that the game is all about drinking, a sort of Oktoberfest in cleats.

"We haven't had a beer yet," he said after finishing the fourth hole.

He’s quick to qualify that statement.

“Of course, we haven’t hit the beer stand yet,” he said.

As the last golfers play through the fourth hole, an eerie calm settles over the course. No one's going to play a casual round of golf on the day of the tournament, and tournament officials say play the weeks after the Sunny King Classic are some of the slowest for the course.

The Acura remains in the tee box as the golfers thin out. Back in the pro shop at the country club, the more coveted prize — the Sunny King Classic trophy — stands unattended on a counter, next to a half-finished bottle of Gatorade and a cell phone that buzzes, unanswered. An unscrupulous competitor could simply make off with the big silver cup, taking the ultimate mulligan.

For competitive-minded players like Bruce Collins, that would defeat the purpose of the tournament. Collins is the last man to play through the fourth hole on Friday.

Collins doesn't do well. After missing a putt he grumbles: "I didn't even hit the blame thing!"

Later he's polite, but with a flinty gleam in his eye. He and his partner finished 7-under one year, and he hasn't given up on repeating that. He's only giving up on winning this one car.

"Maybe next year," he says.

 

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