Growing up, golf was a fascination of mine. The problem, though, was that I am left-handed. And if you ever saw me swing a golf club right-handed, you thought I really had a handicap.
But affording a set of clubs was a whole different subject. They are fairly expensive and when you're out on your own for the most part and you are paying bills far before indulging in things you want to buy and enjoy, you just grin and bear it knowing that someday, you might have enough money to get your own clubs.
And so through the 1990s, I simply was biding my time, first living in my native New Jersey, then in the Florida Keys. It was in the summer of 2000 when I drove up to New Jersey on vacation to see my folks. The girlfriend I was living with had just started with her new job and she didn't want to just jump into a vacation, so she stayed back while I visited. In early August, I drove up that way and spent nearly two weeks in Jersey, but I found out from my cousin Robin that my uncle Sam's golf clubs were just sitting in a closet and she was looking to get rid of them. She had heard I was looking for clubs.
The catch -- they were left-handed! My uncle had passed away in 1996, so they hadn't really seen the light of day since. I made a vow on the Friday before I came back into work in August 2000 that I would stop by her house in Jupiter on my way home and pick the clubs up. Now keep in mind, these were much older clubs. If you put these bad boys up against the current crop of clubs, they'd be choked to death. I didn't care if they were a few decades old -- these were now my clubs. And I gladly accepted the gift from Robin.
The problem, though, was this: Outside of the Key West Golf Club, there weren't many golf clubs to play on and KWGC was a bit on the expensive side. So again, even though I had these clubs, I had to wait my turn.
During the fall of 2000, I got to escape to the mainland a few times for high school football games involving all three of our county teams, Key West, Marathon and Coral Shores. But none of those trips were going to involve playing golf at all. It was a matter of time logistics.
So when November 2000 came around, I knew we had two schools going into the state tournament with Key West and Marathon qualifying in the 3A and 1A classifications, respectively. Marathon was hosting Miami Country Day school in the first round, so I knew the guy working at the Marathon bureau of the weekly paper that was part of our company at the Key West Citizen was going to do the game. That was a given. Unlike Marathon, though, Key West did not win its district title, which meant in its region, the Conchs were going to be a wild card. They were 7-3 for the season and finished third in District 16-3A behind state power Glades Central of Belle Glade and Cardinal Gibbons of Fort Lauderdale. And so I was expecting the inevitable to take place.
And it did -- the Conchs were going to open up the state 3A tournament in the beautiful town of Rockledge against the mighty Raiders, who would be the threat to Glades Central's dynasty in this particular year's playoffs.
This particular week was about preparation. I had done a preview of Key West's team and talking to coach Greg Kremer, who was proud of his guys and was looking for a long run in the state tournament. Then I wound up talking with Rockledge coach Chuck Wood, who was building a pretty darned good football team in the middle of Brevard County. And to culminate all the previews, I had made a deal with my assistant at the time. I told him I would give him Saturday off if he would work for me on Thursday night.
The game was Friday night, November 17, 2000, and I didn't want to just take a seven-hour trip to Brevard County, only to turn around and come home that night. That would be beyond ridiculous. He agreed to work for me on that Thursday and was actually pretty relieved he didn't have to work Friday and Saturday.
So after taking care of some odds and ends at both work and around the apartment, I kissed my girlfriend goodbye in the late afternoon after she got home from work and I grabbed my golf clubs. I think I had found a time to actually play. To get from Key West to Florida City takes two hours and 50 minutes. If you're getting there a lot quicker, people will suspect that the cops are not out on the Overseas Highway. It was 8 p.m. and I jumped on Florida's Parkway until I got into Fort Lauderdale, where I switched up on an exit there, drove down a bit, and got on the entrance way onto I-95 on Commercial Boulevard. By the time I finally reached Exit 191 for Wickham Road. It was about 11:45 p.m. and believe me, I was already tired from the nearly seven hours of driving I had done. So the only thing left to do was drive to the hotel I was staying at -- the Days Inn on Satellite Beach on A1A, located across the street from the ocean.
I arrived at my hotel room at around 12:10 in the morning. I finally checked in and put my stuff down and five minutes later, I was back in the car and heading back toward McLarty Stadium where the game that night would be played. I had gotten good directions so off I went until I got to the stadium. It was a nice-looking stadium and the lights were very much on. Why? Because the "guests" were having a two-hour practice that night before they headed to their hotel rooms to sleep and get ready for the big matchup.
I had told coach Kremer that I would try to make the practice and watch the team work out. Well I did get there and they were going at it ... yes, even at midnight. Kremer then calls me over to him and says, "You want to see the best part of being here?" "OK."
"They went out of their way to make our quarterback feel special."
On the lower parts of the field, the words "The Rock," as in the nickname for Rockledge, were drawn out beautifully. Kremer's quarterback was James Osborne -- whose nickname was "Rock." I can still remember chuckling over that reference. I can still remember Kremer and defensive coordinator (and school athletic director) Pat Freeman confident about how they felt the team would do later that night. I left McLarty Stadium around 1:15 in the morning and headed back to the hotel room to retire for the night.
By 11:15 a.m., I had checked out of the room and had a lot of time on my hands. That's when I knew I was going to finally have that time to take up a sport I so wanted to, but waited just after my 34th birthday to do.
This was a good day to go golfing. It was bright sunshine and temperatures were in the upper 70s. I headed toward the local K-Mart to buy some golf clubs since I had none. Then somehow managed to find my way to the golf course that I was intrigued about playing. It was Baytree National in Viera, a suburb of Melbourne and not far from where my game was that night. It was just after 1 p.m. and to be honest, I had no idea how long it would take me to play this "fascination."
I paid the $40 to go out for the afternoon, they gave me a cart and I was on my way.
No, I will not go ad nauseum on each and every hole of this golf course. Let's just say for a first-time player, every hole was a challenge. I'd hit a good shot, then follow it up with a bad one, then another bad one. And let's just say almost every hole ended in a "snowman." Except that's not how I score. I literally count every last shot.
Good thing this was a Friday and no one was really behind me. I nearly lost all my golf balls that day. I compensated by finding some lost ones while searching out my ball in the woods of this course. To most people, this round would be a nightmare. To me, I didn't really care -- it was my first time playing and I wasn't holding anyone up and no one was certainly holding me up. I went out alone and came in alone.
It took me over 4 hours to play all 18 holes on the approximately 7,250-yard course. Some holes took longer than others, I do admit, but ultimately, I finished the course before it got completely dark by about 5:30. I got back into the clubhouse and showered and got out before 6 p.m.
For the record, I shot a 183. That was my first-ever time on a golf course and I survived it ... with my uncle's older clubs. But I had fun. I didn't lose that perspective. I knew at the end of the day that I wanted to play again. It would just take me some more time to find the right occasion to do it.
I jumped back into my car and headed over to the Perkins Restaurant located on Wickham Road near Murrell Road, where I was about to go back north on again to get to McLarty Stadium. I remember having breakfast for dinner that night and getting out of there by 6:45 p.m. for the 7:30 start.
The parking lot was already packed. I found my way into the stadium as easily as I did the night before when there was nobody there except the Key West High football team practicing. I weaved my way through the crowd to get to my normal perch for the game in the press box on the Rockledge side of the field. And there was quite a bit stirring for the game with lots of Rockledge supporters and the one writer who was there from Florida Today.
I can still remember Rockledge coming out onto the field for the game against the Conchs. If coaches Kremer and Freeman were feeling confident the night before, I was not so sure they would feel that way before game time. Rockledge center Adam Wallace, a senior, was 6-foot-4 and 278 pounds. And Clifton Nichols, a junior two-way lineman, was 6-3, 307 pounds. Another lineman, senior Chris Stone, was 6-3 and 278 pounds.
Key West had a lineman named Aaron Barker, a sophomore who was 6-7 and 285, and senior Chaz Jimenez was 6-1 and 285, but that was it. I was hoping speed may rule the day in the Conchs' favor.
That wasn't going to be the case, though. Not by a longshot. Rockledge had too many stud skill players and were slowly and methodically whipping up on the Conchs. By the time halftime came, it was 31-0. The competitive phase of this state tournament matchup was over. And once Rockledge scored two more touchdowns, the rest of the game was played with a running clock.
Rockledge won the game handily, 45-0. I had seen Rockledge play and just a month before, I had seen Glades Central beat up on Key West in Belle Glade, 33-0. I was convinced Rockledge was the better team and it was only inevitable the two teams would hook up for the region championship in two weeks from then (they did and in the final, it was Glades Central which won the game, 20-17).
I got my interviews and was on my way back when I ran into Osborne, who had gone through the wringer in this one. He and some other players were more concerned about getting home and getting to basketball practice for coach Bill Butler the next morning.
Yes, the next morning. The Conchs were soon to open up their basketball season and some of the football players were missing out on practice. Key West was not going to get home from this game until 5:30 in the morning, but yet, their players were going to make it to an 8 a.m. practice. That, I thought, was the ultimate in devotion for a program.
Since I had made a commitment to my assistant to work by my lonesome on Saturday and give him the day off, I started heading back to the Keys around 10:30 that night. Then on some high school scoreboard show on the radio, I heard the score of the Rockledge-Key West game and the one announcer replying, "I'm pretty sure that wasn't worth the long ride."
I stopped in Fort Pierce off of I-95 and made a phone call to Marathon High coach Jerry Jones. I told him I would do so, and so it was at about 11:40 p.m. I reached him to find out his team had beaten Miami Country Day and was moving on to the next round of the playoffs.
I had something to look forward to the next couple of weeks.
I got back onto I-95 to an exit that would ultimately hook me up with Florida's Turnpike into Florida City, through the 18-mile stretch below that and into the Keys. By the time I got back into Key West and my apartment, it was close to 6 in the morning.
Good thing I didn't have coach Butler's basketball practice in a few hours. I woke up in an empty bed by around noon since my girlfriend woke up early and had some errands to run. I ultimately showed up at the office by 2:30 p.m. and wrote my game story and put the sports section out by my lonesome that day and night.
On the 10th anniversary of my first time playing golf, November 17, 2010, I took that Wednesday off from work and headed south from my home base now in Palatka. And yes, I played that same challenging course at Baytree, a much more "seasoned" golfer than I was that day 10 years earlier. I caught a deal in which I played the course for only $27 that day. And it was still challenging as hell and yes, I lost balls left and right, but it only took me three-plus hours to play this time and I improve by a whole 34 strokes ... I shot a 149.
That was like a celebration to me. And I did by meeting my ex-girlfriend, who I dated between 2008-10 and had broken up with only four months earlier, and her little boy that evening for dinner at Sonny's in Titusville. We had a good time -- little did I know it would be the very last time I would ever see her in person since she passed away in June 2011.
Baytree National, a course designed by the great Gary Player, will always have a place in my heart, even as difficult a course as it is. It was so enjoyable that I even forgot I had a football game to cover that night for a few hours.
Come to think of it, the golf game was far more memorable than the details of that blowout of a playoff game.