Del Norte People: Golf film jogs memories of fairways past

By Chuck Blackburn January 19, 2012 03:44 pm

Editor’s note: Longtime Del Norte County resident Chuck Blackburn’s column appears every four weeks.

 Chuck Blackburn as a teenager with one of the trophies won while he golfed for Jefferson High School in Daly City. Submitted
Chuck Blackburn as a teenager with one of the trophies won while he golfed for Jefferson High School in Daly City. Submitted
Recently my wife Missy and I were in town shopping for food and goodies. She suggested that we stop by Spotlight Video for a movie.

I was sure that she would find something of interest, but to my surprise she came up empty. I had seen a cover of a DVD that had a golfer and a fly fisherman on it. I showed it to her and she agreed to renting it for a week. It was called, “Seven Days in Utopia.”

Its stars were Robert Duvall and Lucas Black. Lucas was a young man out on the professional golf tour and was actually leading the tournament going into the final hole. His father was his caddy and mentor and had a disagreement with him on the selection of his club off the tee. His father talked him into a driver when he wanted to use a three-wood to play a safer shot. This uncertainty led to a shot into deep rough. One bad shot after another led to a disastrous 14 on the par 4 hole.

Lucas drove off in disgust onto a back country Texas road and swerved to avoid a large bull in his way only to drive through a rancher’s fence, wreck the front-end and cut his forehead. Up rides Robert Duvall on his horse and after a short discussion about what happened, Duvall tells Lucas that he knows he is a pro golfer. Duvall knows that he is a troubled young man and offers to host him for seven days at his ranch. Duvall turned out to be a former pro on the tour during the Palmer-Nicklaus era and had much to share with the young golfer.

This movie had a real impact on both Missy and I. With me, my emotions came from my experiences as a young golfer on my way to becoming a champion in the amateur golf circles.

I started playing golf in 1948 at 12 years old at the Sharp Park Golf Course in what is now Pacifica. Sharp Park is built next to the ocean and surrounds a lagoon called Laguna Salada. My dad Wes and I lived in a trailer park about a mile from the course. We scraped together some old clubs, some of them with wooden shafts with names like Mashie, Niblick and Mid Iron. I carried these clubs in a small golf bag very proudly. I found about 50 balls in the lake and rough to start a shag bag for practice. I kept the best for playing. I actually spent more time early on practicing than playing.

I loved hitting shag balls in the windy conditions along the right side of Number 6 fairway. As I progressed with my swing, I worked on hitting low draws to the left and cuts to the right, always trying to feel the club head and the club path. Playing in the wind was always a positive challenge for me. I developed calluses on my left hand, which is the firmest grip on the club. The left hand and the left side control the tempo on the swing and the club path.

When I did play in the late afternoons, I usually teed off on the sixth tee along the ocean, a tough dogleg left with a raised green with a large bunker left. It was always a challenge. I always tried to start the tee shot right center with a slight draw and let the strong northwest wind help bring it back just to the right of a big hump to set up a good approach to the green. On every ball, whether it was during practice or playing a round, my mindset was to picture the shot, feel the shot and extend the finish of the shot to touch the target. This, I felt then as a young golfer and now as a veteran golfer, is key to being successful in the golf swing.

I played golf for four years at Jefferson High School in Daly City. My play improved every year and our home course was Lake Merced Golf Club, a very exclusive private club. We also played the world famous Olympic Club, San Francisco Golf Club, Harding Park and California Golf Club. These were all quality golf courses that demanded good play. John Geertsen was my teammate  and was a son of a local pro. We both played well in our league championship in May of 1954  and shot 25’s to tie for the title.

John went on to Brigham Young University and I was recruited by Ray Balsley, the golf coach at San Mateo Junior College. This was a great fit as Ray did not tinker with my swing, but worked on my mental approach to the game, playing with confidence and playing smart. The year 1955 was a good year for us, but 1956 was to be our year. We were undefeated in match play and had our conference championship in May at Del Rio Golf Club in Modesto.

We all were focused on our play and walked away with the conference title and on to the state finals in Bakersfield. We stopped in Fresno on the way and took in the famous Fresno track and field relays. John Landy ran another sub-four-minute mile and Leamon King of the University of California ran a record 100-yard dash. It was also exciting to watch veteran pole vaulter Rev. Bob Richards perform.

We approached Monday’s championship with excitement as 36 holes of golf in 100-degree heat at Bakersfield Country Club in the morning and Stockdale Country Club in the afternoon. Bakersfield played long and tough and the Bermuda grass greens were tricky. We came out of the morning round in good shape, but Stockdale was a tight course. It suited my game though as I drove  accurately.

Coach Balsley checked in with us as we were paired up in various foursomes. He shared with me that my teammates were doing well and that they had confidence in me as the first man. I drove the ball well and my approach shots were settling on the small greens. We were the last foursome on the course and everyone surrounded the 18th green. This was a great par 3 finishing hole of 205 yards, slightly uphill with a deep bunker short on the green and one to the right. The pin was close to the right-hand bunker.

I was one under par and I wanted a birdie, but par was essential. I sighted the hole and planned the shot in my head. I needed to hit a high-cut three-iron over the front bunker and left of the right-hand bunker. I thought back to my early teens at Sharp Park and the number of times that I had hit that shot in practice. I looked, I sighted, I felt the swing and the club path to the flag with a high finish. The ball landed on the green and rolled to within 15 feet from the pin. I looked at Coach Balsley and he had thumbs up. My first putt stopped an inch away and I tapped it in. Coach came down and hugged me and said we won it by one.

Thanks, Robert Duvall and Lucas Black, for bringing it all back so vividly in my heart and mind.

Chuck Blackburn can be reached at  954-7121.