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My Drive to Be a Champion
Walter Bingham
October 04, 1971
The potential was there, no doubt about that. I needed just a few lessons and a week of practice
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October 04, 1971

My Drive To Be A Champion

The potential was there, no doubt about that. I needed just a few lessons and a week of practice

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Within 10 minutes I had ordered breakfast, met three members who were about to tee off and were willing to let me join them, canceled the breakfast order, changed into my golf shoes, walked down the steep path to the first tee, taken a driver that was offered by a caddie named Whitey and been told to go ahead and hit one. Somewhere in the mist below was the first fairway.

Jimmy Demaret would have been proud of my drive. It wasn't much, just a low liner that faded dangerously close to some trees on the right, but considering I had not touched a club in six months, it was a classic. Hunter, who had come down the hill to observe the launching, seemed pleased to see that what he was inheriting for a week was a little more than zero.

And so we were off, Hunter wishing me luck. When I reached my ball near the right edge of the fairway, Whitey already had pulled out a three-wood, but I was having none of that. The green, lying out there in the heavy morning mist, looked unreachable with any club, so I took a conservative four-iron, swung easily and knocked the ball well down the fairway.

"Nice shot," called one of my companions, a fellow named Sid Bernstein. "You cleared the barranca."

Barranca? Yes, barranca, which is Spanish for ditch, and one was lying out there in the mist, something Whitey had not bothered to mention. Just as well. I learned that the barranca runs not only across the entire width of the first fairway but comes into play on many other holes.

I hit a seven-iron onto the green and two-putted. To be honest, I hit one nervous putt about a foot and a half from the hole and one of the fellows knocked my ball away for a gimme. O.K., not a bad start, I thought. Bogey 5.

"Nice par," said Bernstein as we headed toward the second tee. Another very pleasant surprise. The 1st hole at Riviera is a par 5.

On the 2nd hole I sliced the ball—this was no fade—over some trees and into a practice area. Taking a three-wood, I sliced again, so that now I was back in the first fairway where I had been just minutes before, about 170 yards and two avenues of eucalyptus trees away from the green. Whitey whipped out the four-wood. "Go for broke," he said.

The instant I hit the ball I knew I had gone broke. The ball took off toward the green, but then it started slicing in the general direction of the clubhouse. I never saw it land, but Whitey said something about not worrying because balls always roll back down from the hill there. Not mine. We found it halfway up. A lot of shots followed, mostly wedges and putts, and I took a 9. What a perfect start, I thought, an absolutely typical Bingham performance after only two holes.

It was at the 7th that Hunter came racing up in a golf cart bearing Hotfoot Jimmy Harris, the club's celebrity caddie. Harris, a jaunty man with a Gilbert Roland mustache, took my bag from Whitey, who had been carrying double. I was feeling pretty good, having just hit a six-iron 14 feet from the pin at the par-3 6th for a near birdie and easy par. The 7th was one of those holes with the barranca cutting across it and, sure enough, with Hunter watching, I topped a drive right into it. Hotfoot produced another ball and just as quickly I did it again. And a third time, too. Shades of Demaret. I finally succeeded in getting one over and after an assortment of shots, including some from sand, I recorded a 12. Hunter departed, whereupon I parred the 8th. Three holes—two pars and a 12. That was what I had come to California to eliminate. I finished the round with a 58-45—103, including six pars, a bit better than normal, and that 12, that 9 and an 8. If I had merely bogeyed those three holes, I thought, I would have shot 90. I was confident that week of lessons with Mac Hunter would make that possible.

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