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Tee for Two

steve marino - hains point golf course
During the first half of his rookie season on the PGA Tour, Steve Marino has solidified his status as one of the world's best golfers. But he had his work cut out for him at one of the area's pedestrian tracks at Hains Point. (John McDonnell - The Post)

For the next two weeks, my friends and I tried to predict Marino's East Potomac result. His professional playing partners lauded his consistent putting and perfect ball-striking. Almost one-third of his rounds this season had ended with scores in the 60s. He had converted more birdies than all but seven players on the PGA Tour.

When my friends and co-workers projected those stats on East Potomac's wide-open, 6,600-yard layout, they imagined a result usually reserved for video games such as "Golden Tee." Marino would drive the green on many par-4s and eagle most par-5s, friends predicted. He would roll in long putts on flat, uncomplicated greens. He would flirt with a few hole-in-ones, make at least 10 birdies, finish somewhere around 57 or 58 and shatter the East Potomac course record -- if such a record exists.

Not until the morning of our round did Marino offer a prediction of his own. He stepped into the parking lot wearing shiny black golf shoes and a turquoise golf shirt provided by his sponsor. At a course where warming up usually denoted a few mulligans on the first tee, Marino pulled a six-foot stretching pole out of his golf bag and placed it on top of his shoulders. He folded his arms over the pole, bent toward the ground and swung his back violently from side to side.

"Oh, man, I'm feeling pretty stiff," Marino said. "I think I can still go low 60s."

Putting With a Driver?

He shot a 68. Make that an ugly 68.

The par-4 first hole was emblematic of Marino's round. He crushed a drive 320 yards down the right side of the fairway, almost all the way to the green, only to find the ball settled in a pile of twigs. Marino wasted his next shot chopping the ball out into the grass, and then he pitched his third shot to within 12 feet of the pin. He struck what felt like a pure putt, but the ball ran over sand and stopped a few inches short of the hole. Marino stood on the green and shook his head. "Ridiculous. Just ridiculous," he said. Then he tapped in for bogey.

Marino's patches of excellence continued to be interrupted by bad luck and unseemly playing conditions. He birded Nos. 3 and 4 to get under par. As playing partners, we started to fall into a rhythm: I hit my drives first, after the twosome in front of us had moved at least 250 yards ahead. Then we waited -- sometimes for two minutes, sometimes for five -- until that group cleared the hole and Marino could safely bomb one of his 300-yard drives.

On the sixth tee, Marino stood behind me and watched my tee shot slice over the trees on the right side of the fairway . . . over the course fence . . . over a road . . . over a jogging trail . . . and splash into the Potomac, 150 yards out of bounds.

"I thought you said there were no water hazards on this course," Marino said.

I stepped back, too ashamed to respond, and watched Marino hammer an intentional fade that arched left to right. It soared down the middle of the fairway, cutting a path that mirrored the hole's shape, and dropped to the ground 350 yards away. One of my co-workers from the paper, out on a golf course for the first time in her life to watch this round, offered her evaluation.

"Wow," she said, "his shots even sound different than yours."

The more I watched Marino play, the more convinced I became that golf, for us, involved little common ground. When I asked Marino about the obstacles I considered daunting on PGA Tour courses -- long holes, imposing water hazards, gigantic bunkers -- Marino said they never bothered him. Similarly, at East Potomac, Marino obsessed over details I had never noticed. Overgrown fairways made it impossible, he said, to generate substantial spin on iron shots. Stiff sand traps caused the ball to release on a flat trajectory, negating the importance of touch.

The greens bothered Marino most. After six months spent on greens that ran as fast as tiled kitchen floors, Marino now felt like he was putting along the bottom of a filled swimming pool. No matter how hard he hit it, the ball almost always slid through sand or water and grinded to a halt short of the hole. After Marino left two consecutive putts short on No. 11, he dropped his putter on the green.

"I'm killing it, and it doesn't go anywhere," he said. "I might just start putting with my driver."

Unexpected Hazards

We walked to the 16th hole with Marino three shots under par and me 22 over. I hit, and then Marino pushed in his tee and took his stance. He stepped back, made two practice swings, waggled over his ball, pulled back his club . . . and then stopped.

"What are those guys doing?" Marino said.

He pointed out to the fairway, where two course workers overturned soil 260 yards away. They were facing away from us, sitting in the middle of Marino's likely landing area. Oblivious to our presence, they tilled the ground and planted fresh grass. Marino waited 10 seconds, thinking they would move. Thirty seconds. One minute. Miffed, he tossed out his right arm and shook his head.

Where Marino usually plays, dozens of groundskeepers work 12-hour days to create glistening panoramas of trees and grass. They work until midnight and start working again at 4 a.m., bending their schedules to make sure playing conditions are perfect long before the first golfer arrived. East Potomac operates by the opposite maxim: Here, I told Marino, golfers play around the course workers.

"So you mean I just hit?" Marino said.

Not entirely convinced, he made his worst swing of the day and knocked the ball five yards right of the fairway. Marino cleaned up for a par, and he picked up a birdie on No. 17 to reach his final total of 4 under par. As he walked back toward the clubhouse, Marino studied his scorecard. I asked what he thought.

"It's just kind of like you hit it and guess where it goes on this course," Marino said. "I don't think I'd ever shoot over par on a course like this, but I'm not sure I could ever go really low. On nice courses, you know when you hit a good shot that you're going to get rewarded for it. So if you're playing great, you score great. Here, you just never know."

A few days later, Marino would leave for Pennsylvania to play in the U.S. Open. He would miss the cut after shooting 17 over for his two rounds. Along with almost every other PGA Tour golfer in the field, he would walk away from Oakmont Country Club and call it perhaps the most difficult golf set-up in professional tournament history.

But as he headed for the parking lot in Southwest Washington, Marino looked back at the East Potomac clubhouse and felt a sudden surge of optimism.

"This actually kind of makes me look forward to Oakmont," he said. "That course might be a better fit for me."

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