Tee for Two
Monday, July 2, 2007
Steve Marino, a PGA Tour rookie, stepped onto the first tee box at East Potomac Golf Course in Southwest Washington last month and scoured the ground for a place to push in his tee. A flat expanse of crusted dirt made up one corner; patchy grass covered the rest. Marino tried to force his tee into the dirt, but it snapped in half. He pulled another from his pocket and shoved it into a tuft of overgrown grass. When Marino stepped back into his stance, his right foot rested three inches higher than his left.
"Damn," he said. "What's it take to get a few yards of even ground?"
Standing there, with his hands on his hips and his scorecard still blank, Marino almost passed for the average public-course hacker. He was just a tad pudgy and, on this Wednesday morning, just a tad hung over. His brown curly hair spilled from under a Callaway hat, and tan cargo shorts hung to his knees. But already, Marino had distinguished himself from the typical golfer who played this very public course on Hains Point. His shirt was tucked in. He had arrived more than two minutes before his tee time. His golf bag contained a complete set of clubs, made post-1980.
During the first half of his rookie season on the PGA Tour, Marino had solidified his status as one of the world's best golfers. He had three top-10 finishes and more than $700,000 in winnings. Over the past four months, Marino had jet-setted from one luxury hotel to the next, waking up to break par at courses such as Pebble Beach, Bay Hill and Colonial while caddies lugged his clubs and galleries applauded his shotmaking. Then, in the middle of a rare week off, he'd flown here at The Post's expense to play an over-trafficked muni with me.
I had asked Marino, who will be competing in this week's AT&T National at Congressional Country Club, to play with me at East Potomac because I wanted an answer, finally, to the question that so many of us duffers ask as we walk off municipal courses and total up scores we hope will end up in two digits: What would a PGA Tour player shoot here, anyway? On a short course devoid of significant obstacles, could Marino possibly score in the 50s? Or would the annoyances of public golf -- bumpy greens, eroded fairways, chunky sand traps -- throw him wildly off kilter?
On television each weekend, I watched Marino and his peers play perfectly manicured courses with 500-yard par 4s and wickedly sloped greens. It looked nothing like the game I play regularly at Hains Point, and so I yearned for a level comparison. On the same course, just how good are they? And how bad are we?
Marino walked across the first tee box to his 40-pound PGA Tour bag and pulled out a Callaway driver that had been factory-made to his specifications. He reached into a side pocket and pulled out a $400 range finder, binoculars designed to calculate yardage. At about 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, Marino held the range finder up to his right eye and peered down the mangled fairway of the opening par 4.
"Looks like 350 [yards] dead ahead," Marino said. "It doesn't get much more simple than this."
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Marino, 27, grew up 15 minutes from East Potomac in Fairfax, but he had never heard of Washington's most popular golf course. Even before joining the varsity team at W.T. Woodson High School, Marino's ability to consistently break par had earned him entry into some of the area's best golf courses. He belonged to the Country Club of Fairfax. He traveled to junior tournaments hosted by storied private courses.
As Marino continued to improve, so did the courses on which he played. He starred on the golf team for four seasons at the University of Virginia, graduated and moved to a Florida condo nestled between two courses designed by Jack Nicklaus. He played the best layouts in California, Arizona and Florida during four seasons on small professional tours. When he placed eighth at PGA Tour Qualifying School in December and won his Tour card, Marino earned the right to travel the country and play the best courses in their best conditions of the year.
By the time I called Marino in May to propose my idea, he had all but forgotten what it felt like to play an unremarkable course with unremarkable golfers. Would the course have 18 holes? Would our round take more than six hours? What was the likelihood of getting pegged by an errant golf ball?
"Okay, let's try it," Marino said eventually. "I'm taking a week off before the U.S. Open. We can make it like my practice round."