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Riding golf's emotional roller coaster

Jerry Sullivan is recovering from surgery. The News will reprint some of his favorite columns during his absence. Today's column, the start of his popular golf series in which he set out to break 100, appeared on May 17, 2000.

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One reason I don't like dogs is I'm secretly afraid of getting emotionally attached. Over the years, I developed a similar aversion to golf. I stayed away because I was afraid I might start to love it.

There simply wasn't any room in my life for golf, just as there was no place for smelly animals who relieved themselves on the kitchen floor. The game required large investments of time and money, two things I never seemed to have enough of.

I did experiment from time to time, though I never really inhaled. Back in high school, we'd occasionally skip school to play. But it wasn't the golf that drew me outdoors. It was the chance to be anywhere but math class on a sunny day in June.

I played an occasional round as a young adult, usually for purely social reasons. The real issue wasn't hitting the greens, but hitting the bar afterward. I took a lesson once, in 1989. It was a useful lesson. But I panicked and never went back. I was afraid of the commitment.

A few years later, during a casual round, I walked through a friend's line as he was about to putt. He cursed my lack of golfing etiquette and swore he'd never play with me again. I decided never to play again with anybody. That was eight years ago.

Then, when I thought I was in the clear, golf started licking me in the face and wagging its tail again. I can't recall when the urge came over me. It might have been last year's Ryder Cup, when the U.S. players actually behaved like normal people. Maybe it was Tiger Woods, or my mother-in-law, the only member of my family who plays the game or watches it on TV.

Or maybe I've reached the age where you need a sport that doesn't require running or jumping, one you can play to a ripe old age. I'm 44 years old. I have three children, the youngest a 2-year-old boy. I don't see myself going one-on-one with him on the basketball court 10 years from now.

Whatever the reason, I decided to take up golf in earnest. I'm determined to break 100 on an average public course before the end of the summer. Every two weeks from now until September, I'll report back on my progress -- assuming there is any.

I chose Brighton Park Golf Course as the standard course for the series. I shot my first round there, and the project will be a success when (or should I say, if) I shoot 99 or better there. Mark Gaughan, our respected golf writer, said Brighton is a moderate test of golf, not inordinately hard but not terribly easy, either.

So one day last week, I set out with three established players: Gaughan; Dennis Danheiser, the Deputy Sports Editor who once won a club championship at Brighton; and Dave McMahon, a friend of Dennis' with a similar penchant for crushing a golf ball.

It was humbling before I even stepped on the course. There is a lot more to golf than swinging the clubs. There are unlimited issues of etiquette and comportment. How do you know which hole to shoot for on the practice putting green, for example? Is swearing frowned upon? Are you supposed to have one of those pull carts? Is it OK to wear sneakers?

"One of my goals is to be able to come out and not be conspicuous," I told Danheiser as we stood at the first tee.

"A collared shirt might help," he said.

The first seven holes at Brighton went by in a blur. The scorecard, no doubt, reflects that. I hit a high pop-up into the left rough on the opening hole and was satisfied to have gotten the ball off the ground. I hacked my share of ground balls and spent a lot of time in the rough -- which was the approximate height of the town water tower that day.

After three or four holes, my hands started to get sore. I complained to Gaughan, telling him I had small, weak hands unsuitable for golf.

"No," Gaughan said. He pointed toward a wizened fellow who could have played with George Burns' great-uncle. "He has strength problems. You are too strong. Your problem is going to be rhythm and tempo."

Reassured by that pep talk, I relaxed and began stroking the ball with marginal consistency. I hit one out of every four or five shots square. As any beginning golfer knows, that's all it takes to keep you interested. There are few things that feel better than hitting a golf ball well.

Golf is an exasperating struggle, a succession of failures interrupted by periodic moments of bliss. It's an essentially human exercise; that's what compels people to go out there and hack away for hours, knowing how much humiliation awaits. It all seems worth it in that rare moment when the ball goes soaring sweetly skyward off your club.

Which brings us to the Miracle at Brighton, the 190-yard, par-3 eighth hole. Somehow, I hit a 4-wood in a high arc to the right of the green. With the help of the wind, it drew back nicely, hit near the front of the green and rolled directly toward the hole.

From the tee, in a moment of utter astonishment, all four of us thought it might roll into the cup for a hole-in-one. It stopped 2 feet short, on a curling path pointed straight at the center of the hole. I tapped in for birdie.

Well, you know what happens when a duffer makes a shot like that. He wonders if he has undergone some instant golfing epiphany. Maybe the game is easy after all. Maybe the hacking and the ground balls and the slices and hooks are in the past. Maybe I can play this game!

As I walked to the ninth tee, I actually wondered if I was getting too good too fast. ("What if I break 100 today?" I thought to myself. "It'll ruin the whole series.") By the time I got onto the tee, I was calculating how long it would be before I was eligible for the Senior PGA Tour.

I drove my tee shot into the woods on the left side of the fairway.

When I found the ball in the high rough, Gaughan suggested I pitch out sideways to the fairway and play from there. After all, it was a dogleg left and I wasn't going to hit the green from the woods, anyway. I looked out through the trees to the distant green and uttered words that will live in infamy here at The News:

"What would Tiger Woods do?"

Gaughan shook his head and averted his eyes. I blasted a 4-wood off a tree and the ball narrowly missed hitting me in the head on the rebound.

I heeded Mark's advice and chipped sideways into the fairway on my next shot. Then I hit a fairway wood into the driving range. Rather than climb under the fence and hit from the range, I took a drop. Several embarrassing strokes later, I tapped in for an 11.

So much for the Senior Tour. At that point, lessons seemed like a good idea. I'm sure a lot of you duffers out there could relate. Golf can take you from giddy highs to unimaginable lows in a matter of minutes. It elevates and humbles you, and above all it makes you want to come back for more.

It took me a while to recover from the disaster on No. 9, but I finished strong -- three double bogeys and a bogey -- to card a 117 (all my playing partners scored well under 100, by the way). My score seemed fitting: exactly 18 shots from 99.

One shot per hole from breaking 100.

A shot a hole can't be that difficult. Give me a new driver (my old wooden one is broken), a few lessons, a pair of golf shoes and a collared shirt, and I'll be well on my way. I have to admit, the game has its hooks in me already.

If any of my kids asks, though, a dog is still out of the question.

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Jerry's goal was to break 100 before the end of the summer of 2000. He achieved the feat in 2001, when he shot 98 on an unseasonably warm December day at Terry Hills in Batavia.