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A LITTLE ADVICE ENDS THOUGHTS OF RETIREMENT

A month ago, on a gorgeous late afternoon in Central Florida, I decided that I could stand it no longer. Golf and I were through forever. And this time I meant it. No trial separation. No retaining faint hope of a reconciliation somewhere down life's road. If I ever needed another dose of this kind of aggravation, I could, oh I don't know, become personal secretary to Barry Bonds.

I'd gone into the day with meager expectations, having just stirred the clubs from their long winter's nap. Score was irrelevant. Enjoying the day was paramount. But I submit that there's no savoring the day when a topped ball is cause for celebration, because at least a topped ball isn't a duck-hook that sends the roofers scattering all along the quick-rising adjacent housing development. Do that three straight times and not even Deepak Chopra's reveling in the sunshine.

I was ready to retire. Heaven knows I'd already left the game with my indelible mark: on the siding of fairway condos at River Oaks and Brierwood, on the hood of that brand-new car in the parking lot at South Shore, on my ego when that tricky sand shot at East Aurora ricocheted off the lip (as I knew it would) and struck me just above the nose (as I knew it might).

And that doesn't even count the time I shanked a driver off the first tee at Grover Cleveland, nearly halving the number of Western New York retirees. Or that infamous occasion when I snapped colleague Mark Gaughan's driver off at the hosel on one hole, then repeated the feat with his 3-wood on the next. No, I'm not making this up. Who could make this up?

So a month ago I was determined to quit, once and for all, because this time there was no where to turn. You see, I'd gone through a malicious funk in the late 1980s, when I developed an incurable 60-40 hook -- out 60, left 40. Teachers would rid me of the disease on the range but it always awaited me at the course. I developed my own little gallery. Of tort attorneys.

Seeing no other recourse, I returned to the range, pulled a left-handed club from the hackers' bin and took a few swings. Airborne. Fairly straight. A little heavy on the fade, but like Lee Trevino says, you can talk to a fade; it's a hook that won't listen. A conversion had commenced. I'd teach myself to play left-handed, which, for the time being, seemed more appealing than quitting altogether.

My best days as a southpaw exceeded my best days as a righty. A 76 at East Aurora trumped my right-handed 83 at Hamburg. My 2-under 34 on the back nine at Holland was a ball-striking clinic: one missed fairway, eight greens in regulation, an up-and-down for the ages. That 34 came (of course) in a practice round for the Holland Invitational, and got my father to thinking that for once maybe the kid would carry the weight. Which just goes to prove that age is no safeguard against gullibility. I didn't make a par all weekend, and the old man's into the chiropractor for thousands.

The game began losing its allure. I played lousy and infrequently all last summer, not sure which was cause, which was effect. I was 10 holes from declaring this year's unsightly opening round the last of my life when my brother-in-law, a golf swing junkie hesitant to provide unsolicited advice, relented and told me I was sliding out of everything, should try hitting into a stiff front side.

The improvement was instant. We played again the next day with far better results. I headed off for the Masters, twice visited a range in Augusta, and knew I was getting close. An inconsistent round at Holland last week was a gift, led me to find what I'd been seeking. I'd been too upright on my backswing, was squandering torque, manipulating the downswing in a catch-up mode. I threw some balls down in the back yard and, oh yes, that is it!

I'm back. My fly rod's getting a rest. I can't wait to hit balls again. I'm back to sharing Jerry Sullivan's irrepressible enthusiasm for the game.

Hmmm. Now that gives me an idea. Last week, Sully wrote he could shoot 89 this year (and who am I to doubt him?) Myself? I believe I can slip under 80 for the first time in four years by the end of the summer.

I think it's time we had a little match, 36 holes, public courses, columnist versus columnist, righty versus lefty. Eighteen holes at Terry Hills, the course where he broke 100, and 18 at Holland. I'm offering 12 shots a round, 24 overall, to open the negotiations.

If I win? Sully wears a Drew Bledsoe jersey to Bills training camp.

And if he wins?

Yeah, right.
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com