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Jerry Sullivan: Golf, the crazy game that keeps us coming back

This is my 18th year as a golfer. Go ahead and laugh. I'm sure there's a joke in there somewhere. My game isn't what you would call mature. It's impulsive, temperamental and still prone to throwing the occasional club.

But I love it just the same. It continues to amaze me how many people care, nearly two decades after my series on trying to break 100. My wife tells me the teachers are always asking about my game. Dennis Danheiser, my best golf buddy, says the same thing and is constantly bugging me to write about it.

Come on, I'll scoff. Who wants to read about some old duffer who struggles to shoot in the low 90s? If they want to read about persistent mediocrity, they can read my Bills stuff. Maybe when there's something worthwhile to report.

Well, here some news: I'm back in the men's club at Brighton Park in Tonawanda. I joined for a year in 2008, though that was mainly to play in a club championship. This time, I'm fully committed and having the time of my life.

One of the reasons I took up this maddening sport in the first place was to have a competitive outlet later in life, something to play with my son besides HORSE and fantasy baseball when I turned 60. Golf is a precious thing for a competitive soul who can no longer engage in more active sports like softball and basketball.

I did attempt a hoops comeback this past March, at 61. After one foolish and fulfilling night spent chasing around guys half my age, I strained my Achilles and am still receiving treatment on it three months later. I gave up softball when I got a hip replacement five years ago.

So I went back to the club at Brighton, which Gary Stott fondly refers to as CCT (Country Club of Tonawanda). You pay a small entry fee – which is considerably less than the dues at a real country club – and compete for weekly prizes.

The competition is wonderful. But what I missed most was the camaraderie, the jocular give-and-take, being around the guys – or in my wife's case, the gals. Melinda plays on Thursdays in a league at Audubon. We share our little triumphs and travails, those magical shots late in the day that always beckon you back.

I remember when I took up the game how older golfers would tell me, "It's good to be on this side of the grass." I'm one of them now. But the competition drives me. Melinda says you're competing with yourself in golf, which is true, but I love having something on the line, even if it's a $10 prize or beers on the patio afterwards.

My teacher, Marlene Davis, has told me for years that you need to love playing for money in golf. It makes you better. Sure, it can be enough to play for the sheer joy of it. But there's nothing like competing under pressure and succeeding. It makes you feel more alive.

Last week, Danheiser and I played in the Class B semifinals of the Fred Gerlach Memorial Tournament at Brighton, a two-man best ball event. I'm a "C," based on my current 25 handicap, but played up a class to team with Dennis, who has A talent but carried a B handicap because brutal weather made it tough to score in early spring.

We had qualified first, earning a bye. I'll admit, I was a little nervous, but I shot an 86 in the semifinal, equaling my best 18 ever (a few years back at Grover with county exec Mark Poloncarz). I putted in from off the green for birdie on one hole and had six pars. All things considered, it was the best I ever played.

The Gerlach final will be played at some future date, once the other semi winners are determined. Naturally, I couldn't wait to play again. Golfers know how it goes. You play well and you have it all figure out; You've got the key.  Veteran golfers can guess what happened my next time out at Brighton.

Playing in this week's event with Dan Herbeck and Danheiser, I blew up. I shot 55 on the front, my worst nine all year. Don't tell my wife, but after making a triple-bogey six on the eighth, I heaved my putter into a tree. It descended slowly, limb by limb, like an elevator making stops between floors.

"Golf is a crazy game," Danheiser said as we began the back nine. "You never know when you're going to light it up and shoot great or blow up and shoot awful."

Naturally, I bounced back and had one of my most consistent nines on the back. I made nine straight bogeys and finished with 55-45-100. As I wrote nine years ago, I'm still battling my demons. The good Jerry is capable of breaking 90 on a regular basis. The maniacal Jerry allows negative thinking to sabotage his game.

But it turned out to be one of my best days in golf. Dennis birdied the par-5 18th (nearly chipping in for eagle) and shot 73. He's been playing at Brighton for 40 years, close to 1,000 times, and it was his lowest round ever. Herbeck (he hit the ball well for 102) and I were thrilled for Dennis. Neither of us had ever played with anyone who shot that low.

Yeah, crazy game, golf. You never know when the round of a lifetime is coming or a miserable nine lurking. But one of the great things about competing, and being in a regular group, is the satisfaction of seeing your friends do well.

Of course, after shaking his hand on the 18th green, I did tell Dennis, "Couldn't you have saved it for the Gerlach final?"


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