Finding Chris Hunt

By Michael FechterMay 23, 2008, 4:00 pm
Editor's note: Michael Fechter, orphan worker and humorist, has the best job in golf: he's paid to be the Ambassador of Fun for golf courses across America. His 'job' is to make the courses he represents across America more interesting, unique and fun. Enjoy his humorous series on getting back into the game as he struggles to get his game into the shape it was nearly 30 years ago when he won his only personal junior 'major,' the Al Esposito, on America's easiest muni with rounds of 71-71-75.
 
Theres a reason why storybook endings are called storybook endings: They almost never happen in real life.
 
When I first began this year-long series of columns, I had a beginning ' that of a 45-year-old man yearning to recapture his glory days on the links -- and a plan as to how this would all end. It was the 50 interceding columns that were a bit hazy.
 
I wanted to reconnect with Chris Hunt, my final-round playing partner of the 1980 Al Esposito Junior Invitational, and a golf legend around Charleston, S.C. In my mind, the only way to end this journey would be by replaying that final round with Chris.
 
When we first met at The Al, Chris was 13, weighed 100 pounds and had already won the Vance Simmons and the Azalea Junior. I was who stood between Chris and the 'Charleston Triple Crown' of Junior Golf.
 
No matter how much I refer to Chris as my nemesis at The Al, to the gallery of 150 and the two TV news film crews that day, I was the hated outsider who came to steal glory from the hometown golf prodigy. Worse, I was a college student, and Chris was barely out of middle school.
 
Chris survived the humiliation of losing to me by two strokes and took it out on future Junior golfers. He went on to a scholarship at Georgia, and his legend only grew. Small crowds would gather to watch him hit a bucket on the range when Chris was home for the holidays.
 
Years later I saw Chris at the muni and he was smacking the ball 300, with incredible touch. Watching him, I was jealous in the same way I got when I left the stage after working my ass off, and Jeff Foxworthy would have the crowd without hardly a word. OK, not jealous; it was awe.
 
Moments after my victory at The Al, Chris told a news reporter that he wanted to break all of Jack Nicklauss records. If not for an injury, he would have had that shot. Instead, Chris became the most popular bartender in Charleston, a job that left him free to play the game that he loved, and to meet and marry Tamara, a woman beautiful on so many levels.
 
A few hours earlier, I left the muni, the place where I should have met Chris, on the range, or perhaps on the course while I was looking for my ball, a fairway or two over from the hole I was playing. We would have talked about old times, and how fun it would be to play that final round over again.
 
Instead, I was headed toward Room 441, where Chris was recovering from a stroke. Only, when I got to the room, it was empty. The entire floor seemed unoccupied, except for a lovely woman tending to a thin man of perhaps 50 or 55 in a wheelchair.
 
And I thought, That can't be Chris?
 
It was.
 
I introduced myself to Chriss wife, Tamara, by telling her, 'I'm an old friend of Chris's. We played golf together when we were kids. I haven't seen him much in years...but I came as soon as I heard.'
 
Tamara asked if I would like to talk to Chris.
 
I looked briefly into Chris's eyes. His eyes were glazed. I could see that his entire right side was paralyzed. I saw no hint of recognition, which either meant that Chris no longer held a grudge for my ruining his Charleston Junior Triple Crown at The Al or, more likely, he was exhausted.
 
'Hey Chris, I'm Michael Fechter. It's been a long time,' I said, trying to be upbeat. 'You beat me in golf so much I have to take years off between seeing you.'
 
Chris tried to speak, which just led to frustration.
 
Tamara, Chris and I faked our way through a conversation about their 6-year-old daughter, her school and puppy and whatever other little topics came up. I told Tamara and two nurses that had joined us that Chris was a 'great champion and loved by everybody, especially when he would beat whatever snot nosed punk from out of town came to a local tournament'. One of the nurses said she didn't know that Chris had been so good. I told her 'Oh, Chris was the best. The most popular. The most handsome. The most confident. And I hated him for it.'
 
Thankfully, Tamara and the nurses laughed. Thankfully, they laughed a lot at whatever other nonsense I was spewing as I tried to grasp the severity, the absolute devastation of this stroke.
 
My guess was that at 6-foot-2, Chris now weighed perhaps 130 pounds. A couple of weeks earlier, my friend and reluctant swing coach, Brian Ferguson, said that Chris might need a liver transplant and that his weight and strength were down. 'Chris can probably still outdrive you, Brian said, because he's still hitting it 180.'
 
I won The Al by shooting 1 over for three days. A record at the time. In the years to come, Chris won this tournament with scores as much as 17 under. Tiger Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots. Chris won The Al by a lot more. He went on to star at the University of Georgia and thoroughly recovered from his loss at The Al to some guy who had a lucky three days.
 
Chris sighed, content for a moment, as Tamara stroked his hair, which I took as time best left for them.
 
'Youve always had such beautiful hair.' Tamara said to Chris, gently, as I walked away. 'Even now, such beautiful hair.'
 
In my golf mind, Chris Hunt, my 'nemesis' is 14 and matching me shot for shot on the back nine, not 41 and fighting to stay alive.
 
Every round of golf takes twists that you would never expect standing on the first tee. Life takes even more bizarre, confounding twists.
 
Why can't even simple stories be simple?
 
And what I wouldnt give for this story to end by playing just one more round of golf with Chris.
 
Tom Werner contributed to this column.
 
Email your thoughts to Michael Fecheter
 
Related Links:
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    Snedeker still in front on Day 3 of suspended Wyndham

    By Associated PressAugust 18, 2018, 11:21 pm

    GREENSBORO, N.C. - Brandt Snedeker held a three-stroke lead Saturday in the Wyndham Championship when the third round was suspended because of severe weather.

    Snedeker was 16 under for the tournament with 11 holes left in the round at the final event of the PGA Tour's regular season.

    Brian Gay was 13 under through 12 holes, and Trey Mullinax, Keith Mitchell, C.T. Pan and D.A. Points were another stroke back at varying stages of their rounds.

    Thirty players were still on the course when play was halted during the mid-afternoon with thunder booming and a threat of lightning. After a 3-hour, 23-minute delay, organizers chose to hold things up overnight and resume the round at 8 a.m. Sunday.

    When things resume, Snedeker - who opened with a 59 to become the first Tour player this year and just the 10th ever to break 60 - will look to keep himself in position to contend for his ninth victory on Tour and his first since the 2016 Farmers Insurance Open.


    Wyndham Championship: Full-field scores | Full coverage

    Current FedExCup points list


    The 2012 FedEx Cup champion won the tournament in 2007, the year before it moved across town to par-70 Sedgefield Country Club.

    Snedeker's final 11 holes of the round could wind up being telling: In seven of the 10 previous years since the tournament's move to this course, the third-round leader or co-leader has gone on to win.

    And every leader who finished the third round here at 16 under or better has wound up winning, including Henrik Stenson (16 under) last year and Si Woo Kim (18 under) in 2016.

    Snedeker started the day off strong, rolling in a 60-foot chip for birdie on the par-4 second hole, then pushed his lead to three strokes with a birdie on No. 5 that moved him to 16 under. But after he sank a short par putt on the seventh, thunder boomed and the horn sounded to stop play.

    Gay was 12 holes into a second consecutive strong round when the delay struck. After shooting a 63 in the second round, he had four birdies and an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole. He placed his 200-yard second shot 10 feet from the flagstick and sank the putt.

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    Lexi charges with 64 despite another penalty

    By Randall MellAugust 18, 2018, 11:07 pm

    Lexi Thompson ran into another awkward rules issue while making a bold charge at the leaders Saturday at the Indy Women in Tech Championship.

    She hit a speed bump at Brickyard Crossing Golf Course when she was assessed a penalty for violating a preferred-lies local rule.

    Five shots off the lead at day’s start, Thompson birdied six of the first nine holes, making the turn in 30 to move two off the lead, but that’s where she got her second education this season on the implementation of local rules.

    At the 10th tee, Thompson blew her tee shot right, into the sixth fairway. With preferred lies in effect, Thompson picked up her ball, cleaned it and replaced it within a club length before preparing to hit her second shot at the par 5.

    According to Kay Cockerill, reporting for Golf Channel’s early live streaming coverage, LPGA rules official Marty Robinson saw Thompson pick up her ball and intervened. He informed her she was in violation of the preferred lies rule, that she was allowed to lift, clean and place only when in the fairway of the hole she was currently playing. She was assessed a one-shot penalty and returned her ball to its original spot, with Robinson’s help. The local rule was distributed to players earlier in the week.

    Cockerill said Thompson handled the penalty well, shaking her head when realizing her mistake, and chuckling at her gaffe. She then crushed a fairway wood, from 215 yards, up onto the green. She two-putted from 50 feet and walked away with a par.


    Full-field scores from Indy Women in Tech Championship


    “Thankfully, Marty intervened before she hit her next shot,” Cockerill reported. “Otherwise, she would have been hitting from the wrong spot, and it would have been a two-shot penalty. So, in a sense, it saved her a shot.”

    Thompson is making a return to golf this week after taking a month-long “mental break.” A year ago, she endured heartache on and off the golf course, with her competitive frustration having much to do with being hit with a controversial four-shot penalty in the final round of the ANA Inspiration. She appeared to be running away with a victory there but ended up losing in a playoff.

    Earlier this year, Thompson got another education in local rules. She was penalized in the second round at the Honda Thailand after hitting her ball next to an advertising sign. She moved the sign, believing it was a moveable object, but the local rules sheet that week identified signs on the course as temporary immovable obstructions. She was penalized two shots.

    In her pretournament news conference this week, Thompson shared how difficult the ANA controversy, her mother’s fight with cancer and the death of a grandmother was on her emotionally. She also was candid about the challenge of growing up as a prodigy and feeling the need to build a life about more than golf.

    Saturday’s penalty didn’t slow Thompson for long.

    She made back-to-back birdies at the 13th and 14th holes to post a 64, giving her a Sunday chance to win in her return.

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    U.S. Amateur final comes down to Devon vs. Goliath

    By Ryan LavnerAugust 18, 2018, 9:45 pm

    PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – On his family’s happiest day in years, Nick Bling stood off to the side of the 18th green, trying to collect himself.

    His oldest son, Devon, had just advanced to the U.S. Amateur final, and he surely knew that, at some point, the question was coming. Of the many members in the family’s boisterous cheering section that came here to Pebble Beach – a clan that includes Nick’s brothers and sisters, his in-laws and the teaching professionals of his hometown club – one person was conspicuously absent.

    So for 22 seconds, Nick couldn’t utter a word.

    “She’s watching,” he said, finally, wiping under his sunglasses.

    His wife, Sara, died in February 2013 after suffering a sudden blood clot that went to her brain. She was only 45, the mother of two young boys.

    The news took everyone by surprise – that day Nick and Devon were together at a junior tournament in southwest California, while Sara was at home with her youngest son, Dillon.

    “That was bad. Unexpected,” said Dillon, now 16. “I don’t even want to think about that. That was a rough year.”

    Sara was a fixture at all of the boys’ junior tournaments. She organized their schedules, packed their lunches and frequently shuttled them to and from China Lake, the only course in their small hometown of Ridgecrest, about two hours north of Los Angeles, where they’ve lived since 1990.

    An engineer at the Naval Air Weapons Station, Nick picked up the game at age 27, and though he had no formal training (at his best he was a high-80s shooter), he was the boys’ primary swing coach until high school, when Devon was passed off to PGA instructor Chris Mason.

    “Devon has world-class raw talent, and there’s a lot of things you can’t teach, and he’s got a lot of that,” said UCLA assistant coach Andrew Larkin. “But his dad looked at the game very analytically. He was able to break down the golf swing from a technical standpoint, and I think that has helped him. His dad is a brilliant man.”

    Devon watched his dad hit balls in the garage and, at 18 months, began taking full swings with a plastic club, whacking shots against the back of the couch. Once his son was bigger, Nick put down a mat and built a hole in the dirt on the family’s property.


    U.S. Amateur: Articles, photos and videos


    Once it was time for the next step, there was only one option in town. China Lake is more than 300 miles from Pebble Beach, but in many ways they’re worlds apart. The course is dead in the winter, picked over by the birds in the spring and baked out in the summer, with 110-degree temperatures and winds that occasionally gust to 60 mph. Devon still blossomed into a well-known prospect.

    “Growing up in Ridgecrest,” Devon said, “some could say that it’s a disadvantage. But I could use the course and take a shag bag and go out and practice. So I used it to my advantage, and if it weren’t for that golf course, I wouldn’t be here today.” 

    Nor would he be here without the support of his family.

    Asked how they survived the tragedy of losing Sara so suddenly, Nick Bling said: “Brothers. Kids. Friends. Half of Ridgecrest. The town. They all came together. What do they say, that it takes a village to raise a boy? It did. Two boys.”

    Devon carried a 4.2 GPA in high school and played well enough to draw interest from UCLA. He played on the team last season as a freshman, winning a tournament and posting three other top-10s. The consistency in his game has been lacking, but the time spent around the Bruins’ coaches is starting to pay off, as he’s developed into more than just a swashbuckling power hitter. He has refined his aggression, though he’s offered more than a few reminders of his firepower. Last fall, the team held a Red Tee Challenge at TPC Valencia, where they all teed off from the red markers. Bling shot 28 on the back nine.

    In addition to his awesome game, Larkin said that Bling was one of the team’s most mature players – even after arriving on campus as a 17-year-old freshman.

    “I think his mannerisms and his charisma really come from his mom,” Larkin said. “It was a super hard time in his life, but I think it helped him grow and mature at an early age. He’s such a good big brother, and he took a lot of that responsibility.

    “There’s a blessing in everything that happens, and I think it made him grow a little young. I think he’s the man he is today because of her.”

    In his player profile, Bling wrote that his mom always wanted him to play in USGA championships, because of their prestige, and she would have loved to watch him maneuver his way through his first U.S. Amateur appearance.

    After earning the No. 41 seed in stroke play, Bling knocked off two of the top amateurs in the country (Shintaro Ban and Noah Goodwin), edged one of the nation’s most sought-after prospects (Davis Riley) and on Saturday traded birdies with Pacific Coast Amateur champion Isaiah Salinda.

    In one of the most well-played matches of the week, Bling made six birdies in a seven-hole span around the turn and shot the stroke-play equivalent of a 65 to Salinda’s 66.

    The match came down to 18, where Bling bludgeoned a drive over the tree in the middle of the fairway, knocked it on the green in two shots and forced Salinda to make birdie from the greenside bunker, which he couldn’t.

    Bling was a 1-up winner, clinching his spot in the finals (and the 2019 Masters and U.S. Open), and setting off a raucous celebration behind the rope line.

    “He played as good as I’ve ever seen,” Larkin said. “The talent has always been there, and I’m glad it’s coming out this week.”

    Another difficult opponent awaits in the championship match. It’s a mismatch on paper, a 36-hole final between Oklahoma State junior Viktor Hovland, ranked fifth in the world, and the No. 302-ranked Bling. Hovland had won each of his previous two matches by a 7-and-6 margin – the first time that’s happened since 1978 – and then dropped eight birdies on Cole Hammer on Saturday afternoon.

    But he’s likely never faced a player with Bling’s resolve – or a cheering section as supportive as his family’s.

    “This means a lot to us,” Dillon said. “It was finally Devon’s time, and I knew one day it’d come down to the finals. He’s been playing awesome. Mom is probably really happy right now.”

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    Report: Fan hit by broken club at Web.com event

    By Golf Channel DigitalAugust 18, 2018, 9:12 pm

    A fan was hit by a broken club and required stiches Friday at the Web.com Tour's WinCo Foods Portland Open.

    According to ESPN.com, Kevin Stadler slammed his club in frustration causing his clubhead to break and it struck a fan in the head.

    The fan required six stiches and was released from the hospital.

    Orlando Pope, a Web.com Tour rules official, spoke with ESPN.com:

    "It was a very freakish accident. Kevin is devastated. He had trouble trying to finish the round. He was quite worried and felt so bad.''

    Former PGA champion Shaun Micheel was in Stadler's group and posted this message on Facebook:

    "One of my playing partners played a poor shot with a 7 iron on the par 3 fifteenth hole this morning. In a fit of anger he slammed his club against the ground and the side of his foot which caused the club to break about 6” from the bottom. I had my head down but the clubhead flew behind me and hit a spectator to my right. It’s been a while since I’ve seen so much blood. We stayed with him for about 15 minutes before the EMT’s arrived. The last I heard was that he had a possible skull fracture but that he was doing ok otherwise. [Stadler] was absolutely shattered and we did our best to keep his spirits up. This was not done on purpose and we were astounded at the way the club was directed but it shows you just how dangerous it is to throw or break clubs. Each of us in the group learned something today!"