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A quest to break 90 once again

I don't know what's more amazing – that it's been 13 years since I took up golf, or that people still remember my quest to break 100. Scarcely a day goes by without someone mentioning that series or asking how my game is doing.

Time sure flies. The other day, I realized it had been nearly three years since I broke 90 for the first time. It seems only yesterday that I putted in from the fringe for birdie on the 18th at Brighton and heard Dan Herbeck say, “Sully, I think you just shot 89.”

Of course, the memory is tempered by the fact that I haven't reached my new goal of 85. Aside from an 86 last year at Grover Cleveland (in the company of Mark Poloncarz), I haven't broken 90 since. At the risk of offending the county executive, I consider Grover easy enough to merit an asterisk.

So I'm still waiting for that next breakthrough, where my average round is closer to 90 than 100. Thanks to experience and technology, I'm still getting longer and better at 57. I want to reach the point where I can shoot consistently in the high 80s before I'm eligible for the senior tees.

Like any golfer, I have excuses. There was the hip replacement in early 2012. This past April, I had minor toe surgery that set me back. Having my wife take up golf has been the most gratifying development of the last three years. I spend a lot of time on nine-hole courses, though.

Melinda is making great strides. On Tuesday, she played in the Ladies' 9-hole Guest Day at Transit Valley Country Club. She said Patti McLain and the gals were quite encouraging. Their team finished third and she got a prize. Ah, the benefits of being a local golf celebrity!

That same day, I played Brighton, where I was a member of the men's club in 2008 and shot the 89 two years later. I played with Deputy Sports Editor Dennis Danheiser, my faithful golfing chum; and Todd Ciehomski, a Town of Tonawanda police detective who's an old Kenmore East pal of Den's, a good stick and a good guy.

I was determined to be a newer, smarter golfer. The night before, I had re-read my golf preview story from two years ago, when I wanted to set new goals. It occurred to me that I'd basically ignored the tips I'd received from some of the top players in the area.

Marlene Davis said to stop obsessing about score. Julie Murphy and Ward Wetlaufer agreed. Find other ways to chart your progress, like total putts, greens hit in regulation, sand saves. Lonnie Nielsen told me his breakthrough on the senior tour came when he realized his bad holes had come in clusters. He was allowing one bad hole to unnerve him and compounding the problem.

So for the first time, I'd count my putts and shots to the green. I'd have a bogey golfer's simple goal: Get to the green in one over regulation and two-putt. My main goals were to get the most out of every shot and to keep my head.

I wasn't supposed to obsess about score, but I can't ignore it, either. I set up an imaginary round for myself: 1 birdie, 5 pars, 6 bogeys, 5 double bogeys and 1 triple: An 18-over par 90. Sounds easy enough.

Things went very well at the start. After bogeying the first, I parred three of the next four holes. I hit a par-3 green with a 6-iron and barely missed a birdie. I hit a 75-yard gap wedge to six inches for a par. I knocked a 6-iron to 15 feet and two-putted for par on the fifth.

At one point, I turned to Ciehomski and said, “I don't want to jinx myself, but that might be the best five holes I've ever played.”

On the next hole, a long par-3, I hit my drive 100 feet straight up and 50 yards into the rough. It wasn't Merion, but nasty all the same. My second shot traveled about 20 yards in the rough. Somehow, I salvaged a 5. I double bogeyed the next two holes, too. I wondered how Melinda was making out.

But I pulled myself together at the turn. I parred 11 and 12, a couple of 368-yard par-4s, hitting solid irons to the green and two-putting both. I was flying high at that point. I felt like a real golfer. Five pars in 12 holes. I won't lie about it, I knew I was on pace to break 90.

It didn't go so well from there. Excuses? It was the first time I'd walked 18 all year. I wore down physically and began pulling my drives, a common malady of mine. Someone sent me a text saying Terry Pegula had embarrassed himself on the radio. My mind drifted, and my wedge and putter went with it.

At 13, I told Dennis and Todd it was time to get on the bogey train. Instead, I doubled the next three holes. I might as well have been using a croquet mallet for a driver. Later, on the way to the par-5 18th, I told Dennis, “At least I've used only one ball the entire day.”

Naturally, I sliced my drive into the rough. Then I hit a 6-iron into a swampy ditch. So long, Slazenger. At least I made a 7, which meant I had gone the whole round without a triple bogey. I finished with 94, which was a bit of a letdown after my first 12 holes.

Still, it was my best round in a year. I achieved my main goal, which was to play smart and not allow tiny calamities to drag me down. Todd shot 83, Dennis 84.

Keeping track of putts and greens did help. Even when things are going astray, it gives you tangible objectives to occupy you along the way.

As Dennis told me later, I was four holes away from breaking 90. When I shot 89 in September of '10, I birdied two of the par-5s. On Tuesday, I had a 7 (double bogey) on each one of the four par-5 holes. That means if I had made a 6 on each one of those par 5s, I would have shot 90. That's the key to breaking 90: play bogey golf, throw in a few pars and maybe a birdie and stay away from the double and triple bogeys.

But that's golf. We all sit at the bar afterward, lamenting the shots we left on the course. The game is a chronicle of regret and lost opportunity, interspersed with great moments of joy, like life itself.

You know what I love best about it? The feeling that I'm getting better, the absolute certainty that my best days are still ahead.