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Published: Thursday, 4/20/2006

18 aces: There are many, many reasons to love the game of golf

Legend has it there once was a saloon in Ireland that sold beer and ale and put a bottle of Irish whiskey on the bar for patrons to tap into for free.

The owner was a certain Mr. Mulligan. The bottle became known as the mulligan and the concept of a free shot eventually spilled over onto the golf course. It is indeed a wonderful thing. Hit a bad shot? Take a mulligan. The freebie is usually reserved for the first tee only, but I once played with a fellow who took 18 mulligans, one on every hole. I believe he was Irish.

Even better is the press bet. Your opponent might be deep into your wallet on the original wager, but you re never dead as long as there s a press left. Our favorite is the "air" press. You can shout it out while your opponent s ball is in the air, drifting towards the out-of-bounds stakes or a nearby body of water.

Part of golf s charm is the natural beauty and the obvious challenge presented by every course and every hole being different. Every tennis court is the same. Plus, there s running and sweating involved. We golfers are above such things. Sure, you have Maria Sharapova. We have Natalie Gulbis. Any questions?

An 82-year-old man can take his 9-year old great-grandson out to play golf. Name one other sport where that s the case. OK, we ll give you bowling. Lawn bowling. Croquet. Fishing. But you get the point. Golf is a game for life, for all ages. And there s nothing slimy to take off a hook when you re done. It s a game of hand-me-down clubs from father to son, mother to daughter. As for grandma and grandpa, the Alzheimer s Association has compiled research that the mental, physical and social aspects of golf may help stave off the aging process.

One of my favorite golfing companions is a lady in her 70s who dang near shoots her age every time out and beats on me like a drum.

And one of my favorite memories is playing out of the same bag of clubs with my daughter, maybe 11 or 12 years old at the time, on a course at Hilton Head, S.C. A foursome of men was waiting behind us on the first tee, not-so-subtly grousing about being behind a young girl. She striped a 3-wood about 200 yards down the middle and we never heard from, or saw them, again.

In 1996, the year before Tiger Woods groundbreaking victory in the Masters, about 430,000 African Americans played at least one round of golf. Last year, the number was more than 1.4 million. There were less than 100 junior golf programs that targeted inner-city and minority youth. Today, there are more than 500.

There have always been hurdles, seemingly-insurmountable ones, that stood between African Americans and golf. The PGA Tour s "Caucasian-only" rule existed into the 1960s, private clubs had restrictive membership policies, the cost of the game was often excessive, and there was a dearth of inner-city facilities. Minority kids took to other sports as their ticket out. Then Tiger made history, golf became cool, and everything changed for the better.

One local course operator offered this formula one beer sold per player per round. Consider there are about 80 courses in The Blade s area listings, figure that the average is more than 20,000 rounds per course, and, well, you can do the math. It s a lot of beer. But not as much as in days past, claims Nelson Snellenberger, the director of golf at Whiteford Valley. "People are being a little smarter about it," he said. "I think golfers are more conscious of drinking and driving, which is good."

So, are we wrong to include alcohol as an inducement to play golf? Not if you believe the old tale that the ancient Scots who invented the game each took a bottle of hooch out onto the golfing fields and downed a shot after every hole. There were 18 shots in a bottle, so that s when they quit and that s why there are 18 holes on a golf course to this very day. Of course, to believe that tale, you d have to believe those Scots would still be upright after 15 or 16 belts.

Your wife doesn t allow them in the house. They leave a stink in the car. But the golf course is the perfect place to fire up a Romeo Y Julieta or a Montecristo. It s become such a big thing that you have to kick aside a butt or two upon occasion before hitting a shot from the rough.

Check out any magazine rack. Go to the video store. Spend your Christmas bonus at a golf academy. Order training aids online. Help for your golf game real or imagined or just the latest gimmick is everywhere. But here s the best tip you ll read on this page: if you re serious about improving, see a PGA professional. All private clubs employ at least one, usually more, and others are listed with their daily fee courses elsewhere in this section. Inquire about their experience and lesson rates. Get instruction and make the most of it with plenty of visits to a driving range.

It is one of the oldest golf courses in the Midwest and one of the few public courses in the country that has barely been touched by time. Sure, Toledo-based course designer Art Hills gave it a face-lift a couple decades ago, but it was more a tweaking than an overhaul for two reasons. First, there s only so much acreage to work with. Secondly, he knew first-hand the history of the place and had no desire to erase it.

Like tens of thousands of other Toledoans, he grew up playing the course and learned the game there. So, yeah, it s too short and too tight and, for some golfers, too easy. But if you close your eyes you can see S.P. Jermain carrying his clubs to the course from the nearby street-car stop long before paved streets and long before a university sprung up near the corner of the property. It s one of the few places where the Toledo of the early 1900s fits so comfortably with Toledo of the early 2000s.

Titanium, graphite, square grooves and sweet spots the size of Vermont. The advances in equipment technology have been staggering. The greatest invention since the flush toilet are drivers and fairway woods that include adjustable weight ports that allow golfers to "program" a club to best fit his or her swing. TaylorMade started everything with the r7 Quad Driver, refined it, and has seen the idea copied by others. If you have an inside-out swing that normally produces a fade [the polite word for a slice] and you need more draw, just move the weights. Does your weight shift promote a high trajectory? Lower it by adjusting the weights in TaylorMade s "launch control system." Now, one club fits all.

10: The blame game

Did somebody cough in your backswing? Did a tiny insect land on your nose at the moment of impact? You didn t mis-hit that 8-iron approach shot on a water hole; rather, the wind puffed up at the wrong instant. Golf is a game of imperfections and a game of excuses. Even the pros do it, especially at U.S. Open time. The course is unfair, you know? In golf, you can blame everybody except yourself.

11: Road trips

Toledo is located near the crossroads of I-75 and the Ohio Turnpike. Those may not be the highways to heaven, but they lead to some heavenly golf. So grab a few friends, toss your clubs in the trunk and hit the road.

Northern Michigan golf is some of the best in the country. Boyne, Treetops, Black Lake, Shanty Creek, and the Gailes near Oscoda are on anybody s list. And at the very top of the list are Arcadian Shores on Lake Michigan near Arcadia, Bay Harbor on Little Traverse Bay, and Tullymore, a hidden gem in the central Canadian Lakes region near Stanwood.

Closer to home are Michigan dandies like Shepherd s Hollow in Clarkston, an Art Hills design that Golf Magazine ranked as one of the top 10 courses in America that are open to the public, as well as Blackberry Patch in Coldwater and The Grande in Jackson.

Go east, just over the Pennsylvania line, and be dazzled by Olde Stonewall near Ellwood City. Go west into Indiana and play stately Blackthorn near South Bend.

Ohio golf isn t bad, either. In fact, two state tracts are on Golf Digest s most recent national list of "best new affordable public courses." They are the Golf Club at Stonelick Hills in Batavia, east of Cincinnati, and Grey Hawk in Lagrange, not far off the pike southwest of Cleveland.

12: The 19th hole

If you ve had the good fortune of playing Toledo Country Club you know there really is such a thing. It s a little dink shot, uphill par 3 that s just for fun. Otherwise, the 19th hole is a place to unwind, quench your thirst, and satisfy your hunger. The beer s never colder than in the grill room at South Toledo, the dogs are never better than the ones Mary The Legend serves up at Ottawa Park, and the popcorn is never saltier than the heaping basket you get at Whiteford Valley. You can play nine holes and grill your own steak on Friday nights at Bedford Hills or gorge on the buffet at The Legacy before teeing it up on Sunday mornings.

13: The D Flight

The very best thing about golf is its handicapping system. All golfers may not have been created equal, as Thomas Jefferson implied, but they end up that way. Phil Mickelson is, oh, maybe a plus-3 handicapper. You re a minus-22. The way the system is set up, if Lefty gives you 25 shots you should have a good chance to play him even in a match. He shoots 68, you shoot 92 and you win! Of course, if he tosses a 64 at you, you d better make some putts, because Phil likes to play for high stakes.

The handicapping system, which is certified by the USGA, also makes for even tournament competition. If you re a 16 handicapper, you re not expected to hit the ball 280 off the tee and spin it on the greens to be a contender. There s a flight just for you and others like you. It s the great equalizer.

14: Every hole is a picture postcard

Which is the prettiest golf hole in the area? You could line up 20 golfers and get 20 different answers. But you can t go wrong with the finishing hole at Stone Ridge in Bowling Green, the par-5 14th hole at Maumee Bay with its double water hazard, any of the water-logged par 5s at Eagles Landing (the horseshoe 13th is our favorite) or with No. 5 at the Legacy.

Sure everybody talks about the island green at No. 8 and the carry over water on the pretty 10th hole at the Legacy. But we think the most under-appreciated hole around is No. 5, with its risk-reward double fairway over wetlands and its hidden, tiny green. And speaking of No. 5, if you re getting ready to play Heather Downs for the first time since it opened its doors to the public, wait until you see the par 3 that falls off a cliff, or what passes for a cliff in northwest Ohio.

15: It s a four-letter word

All the others were being used, so they named this sport golf. If you want to hear some of those other words, hang out at any course and wait for somebody to miss a straight, uphill, two-foot putt with a couple bets on the line.

16: It s cheap ... really

OK, sure, good clubs are expensive. The r7 Quad will set you back about $600, a sweet set of Ping G2 irons might wipe out a mortgage payment, and the price of a dozen Titleist Pro V1s will cause chest pains every time you see a water hazard.

In northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, however, the actual playing of the game is relatively inexpensive. If you ve ever paid to play in other parts of the country, you know that we are blessed with a bevy of top-shelf daily fee courses that are economical by comparison.

Why? This isn t a tourist or resort area. The courses are dependent upon local play. After a glut of course start-ups and expansions during the boom of the late 1980s and early 90s, there are too many courses and too many holes for the number of golfers in the area. The result is a buyer s market. The courses keep their rates reasonable and competitive, and when you add in the discount coupons that float around in various publications, including this newspaper, it can be downright cheap.

17: A good walk spoiled?

True, it s hard to sell exercise as a reason to love golf when you re riding in a cart with your feet propped up on the front tray, dragging on a long, dark cigar and thinking about popping the top on another beer from the cooler in the back bin. Of course, there are those long walks from the cart path to the green and all the way back again.

But walking a golf course is typically a stroll of somewhere between three and four miles, which provides endurance exercise for your heart. Carry or pull your clubs at the same time and you ll burn up even more calories. A 190-pound man walking a course and carrying his clubs will burn between 400 and 500 calories per hour. An average-size woman will burn between 300 and 350 calories. Who needs aerobics?

18: Golf jokes

The two old men had never missed their Wednesday morning golf game since they retired a couple decades earlier. This particular day, a funeral procession passes by as they re playing a hole near the road.

One old man takes off his cap and holds it over his heart. "My, that was awfully respectful of you," said the other man. "Well, we were married for 53 years," said the first.

There are a million of them. You want another?

On their wedding night, a man confesses to his new bride that he s a golf-a-holic. He plays four or five times a week, he s always late for dinner because he stops on the way home from work at the driving range and he spends bundles of money traveling all over the world to play.

"Please don t hate me for this," he said. "It s my addiction."

"It s OK," she said, tears welling in her eyes. "Because there s something I have to confess to you, too. I m a hooker."

He thinks for a moment. "Don t cry sweetie. It s not that big a deal. If you close your stance a little, tighten your grip and lower your right thumb you ll hit it a lot straighter."



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