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It's hard to believe, but next month will mark the five-year anniversary of my debut as a golfer. Where has all the time gone? More to the point, where have all those golf balls gone?

The game hooked me that year and hasn't let go. It wasn't until I found golf that Buffalo's weather began to get to me. There's nothing worse than sitting around until April, unable to feed the obsession.

So Wednesday morning, I woke up in crisis. Many of my golfing pals had already been out, but I hadn't swung a club in six months. Worse yet, it occurred to me that on Saturday, I was doomed to sit for six hours in a press room, waiting to find out which anonymous player the Bills had selected in the second round of the draft.

Those were six hours I could be spending on a golf course. But I couldn't miss the draft, could I? How else can I find out what kind of motor the kid has, how well he runs in space, or whether he spelled his name right on the Wonderlic test?

No, if I wanted to start the golf season, it was time to act. The weather report called for rain. But outside my window, it was sunny and clear. I bolted out of bed and grabbed a wrinkled golf shirt and pants. I contemplated ironing but opted for coffee instead.

Shortly before 8 a.m., I was on the first tee at the Audubon Golf Course in Amherst, feeling alive and full of possibility. My goal was modest. I wanted to beat Billy Casper's 106 at the Masters, which prompted Bob DiCesare's cheap shot at me in his column.

Six months of idleness hadn't done me any apparent harm. Of course, when you don't have much game, it doesn't take long for it to come back. It's also reassuring to know your bad habits haven't left, either.

Anyway, I was surprisingly long and straight with my woods. My short game was a nightmare. One of these days, I'm going to the range and hitting nothing but 40-yard chips. I've been saying that since 2000, but this time I mean it.

On the par-5 eighth, I hit two nice shots and actually muttered, "I like myself." It took five more shots to navigate the final 80 yards for double bogey. It was that sort of day. One minute, you want to kiss yourself. The next minute, you're looking for a rope and a tree limb.

It could have been worse. I could have been Joe, the guy I was paired with. Generally, the older guys are fast, and straighter than Condi Rice. Joe was bad and slow. He swung like a man trying to kill ants with a broom. After awhile, he was even taking lessons from me -- a low point for any golfer.

Joe left me after the turn. Soon it was time to play the old Buffalo golfing game: Beat the weather. The skies darkened and the wind picked up at the 13th. But at 10:20, the sun came out again, maybe in deference to my only par of the day. Just as I was having visions of breaking 100, I tried a regrettable experiment with a lob wedge from behind the 14th green. That turned a sure bogey into an 8.

I bogeyed three of the last four holes to shoot 102, not bad for the first time out and four better than Casper at Augusta. All golfers say this, but it could have been much better. I wasted six or eight strokes on bad chips. Given some practice and ideal local conditions (this year, it's Aug. 10-12), I can shoot 89 this year.

I'm in no hurry. I get a little bit better every year, and I'm happy with incremental progress. Golf has been called a "good walk spoiled," but it's a good walk just the same. It's about hope and optimism and being on the right side of the grass.

We appreciate the game a little more in Buffalo, because we have to do without it for half the year. Getting out for the first time is like going home again. As usual, I had forgotten how much I loved the game, and how much I missed it.

Some days, the game loves you back. As I drove away from Audubon at 11:30, the first raindrop of the day, and the golf season, splashed onto my car windshield.