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Keeping Tournament on Course : Harbor College Golf Coach Makes Sure Event Stays Up to Par

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<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The bright morning sun hung over the tops of fairway pine trees as Gordon Wells sipped from a steamy cup of coffee.

It was 7:30 a.m. Wells had been up since 5, the last hour and a half at the Long Beach Navy Golf Club Destroyer Golf Course in Cypress. His job: tournament director of the Southern California Athletic Conference championship golf tournament, a first-round qualifying tournament for the community college state championships.

Wells, a National Football League official, is better known as the director of physical education at Harbor College. But he also doubles as the school’s golf coach.

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His white Mercedes-Benz sedan with the license plate “NFL 89” had become a meeting place--an outdoor office of sorts--for the 10-golf coaches who brought a total of 44 players to the 36-hole match. Some came from more than two hours away.

“This is going to be a long day,” Wells told a group of coaches around the first tee.

Explained Wells later: “Lots of people look at it. . . . Their immediate reaction is, ‘Holy mackerel. I can’t believe you get paid (to be a golf coach).’ ”

Wells said he spent a “solid week” making last-minute preparations for the tournament. He planned to spend more than 14 consecutive hours here during the tournament.

At 7 a.m. the first of 11 foursomes had teed off. A pair of coaches’ fivesomes played the back nine for fun. Only two teams and the four top individuals would advance to the state regionals.

Wells was concerned about slow play.

“Don’t make some guy come after you and ask you what you had on that hole,” he told the final foursome in an authoritative voice before they teed off. “Announce your scores.”

Then, shifting to a more friendly tone, he bade them to begin. “Tee it up men, You’re up.”

Built in 1967, the restricted Navy course straddles the airport of the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Los Alamitos. Often invited to play the course by friends, Wells, a Navy veteran, sought the facility for this tournament for a variety of reasons. It is a relatively flat course, one he said that plays “harder than it looks. A lot of guys see this course and think they can eat it up,” he said. “It will fool them.”

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Harbor College, the host school for this tournament, usually plays its home matches at Palos Verdes Country Club. But because this was a championship tournament, “I needed a course that is fairly neutral,” Wells said.

With a rule book at his side, Wells drove a golf cart up the 18th fairway. He cut across a couple of paths and wound up near the fourth tee of a par 4, 362-yard dogleg around water. Scott Glasky, Harbor’s No. 5 man, hit a booming tee shot.

“He smoked it,” said Wells. Later he learned Glasky had already suffered two three-putt greens.

Wells fielded a rules question from a Mission College player and whipped the cart back up the fairway to a spot where ground was under repair. Satisfied he had given the player the correct ruling, he continued along the course.

“Looks like my team is off to a weak start,” he said, pointing to a lake across another fairway where a player dressed in a Harbor uniform (blue slacks and a gold shirt) was searching for a ball. “One of my guys is in the water.” Players are allowed only five minutes to search for a ball, but some think they can take all day, Wells said.

Field supervisor Paul Moreno caught up with Wells five minutes later. The pair decided pin placement in the second round should be more central to the greens. Because the course gets windy in the afternoon, both expected it to play longer. Consequently, Wells said, the players could expect their scores to be “four to five strokes higher.”

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“We’re not trying to make things difficult for them,” he told Moreno.

At the fifth hole, a 356-yard par 4, Wells fielded a player’s question. He was not positive he could give the correct answer.

“Get a ruling before you sign your card,” he told the player.

At No. 6, Wells came upon a group that included Harbor’s No. 4 player, Greg Watts.

“How are the greens rolling, guys?” he asked the foursome.

“Like concrete,” responded Watts, who would finish the first 18 holes leading with a two-over 74.

Wells kicked the golf cart in gear.

“No matter what guy is playing, he thinks he should be doing better,” he said.

As a golf coach, Wells explained, he does little teaching.

“Most of these kids have their own teachers,” he said. “The majority of what we do is to teach these guys how to compete, to learn course management and to master the emotional aspects of the game.

“There are no gimmes in tournament golf. The vast majority of this game is mental--patience and controlling your emotions. If a guy hits a bad shot, he broods. The good ones can reconcile a bad shot. The hole is done. They can put it behind them. That is the competitor.”

The golf coach is an organizer, he said.

“So much of my time is spent in the vans, driving the kids.” (Harbor plays 22 matches a year, exclusive of state tournaments).

Wells saw his No. 1 player, Jim Gormley, at No. 11, a 180-yard par 3.

“He’s hitting last,” he said of Gormley. “Must have had a poor hole.”

Gormley dropped his tee shot near the flag.

“That’s a golf shot,” uttered Wells. He punched the cart down the fairway. On his way to the clubhouse he bought a soda at the snack bar near 14, discussed a drop area near an aerated fairway with Moreno and held an impromptu meeting with a coaches group around the 17th tee.

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“I would have liked to play,” Wells said. “But putting on a tournament took the fun out of it for me.”

Back at the clubhouse he made sure the leader boards had been posted. The first foursome came off the 18th green around 11:30, as he had predicted. A smile crossed his face. The tournament was running on time.

Later, a complaint was lodged against one of the competitors for the use of foul language and throwing of clubs. Wells warned that the player would be disqualified if it happened again. A coach was assigned to follow his group. Players must be particularly respectful of golf etiquette on private courses, Wells said.

“We’ve got to be sure we don’t ruffle any feathers. We’ve got to walk on eggs.”

The second round began at 2:30 p.m. with the two coaches’ group bringing up the rear for another nine. Wells hopped in his golf cart and went back on the course to marshal again. He fielded a variety of rules questions, including what to do about a pair of buried tee shots in a silicon sand bunker on No. 6. At No. 7 he warned a parent who was watching the tournament not to give advice to his son.

Nearing No. 14 again, he stopped the cart. “All I’ve had to eat today is half a tuna sandwich,” he said. The sun was beginning to sag in the sky. Wells wondered if the last group would get around to the snack bar by its 4 p.m. closing time.

“These kids love candy bars,” he told the snack bar attendant.

Wells bought a hot dog, plunked down into the golf cart and up the course he went.

A fighter plane, the first to be seen, glided in for a landing on the airstrip adjacent to the back nine. Wells turned to watch.

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“Wouldn’t you like to take off in one of those things?” he asked.

As he drove along the 18th fairway, large piles of sand in the bunkers caught him by surprise. The sand had not been there in the first round. It was dumped by groundskeepers sometime after lunch.

“We’ll have to get a ruling on that,” Wells said. “I’ll have to find the coaches group and we’ll have to make a decision. Should we let the guys take a drop for that because it is under repair, or should they hit another ball out of there if their first one gets buried and they can’t find it?”

Consternation showed on his face.

“This is a lonely job to do.”

He whipped the cart past the green and made his way to the parking lot. He needed a windbreaker from his car. He said he’d like to stay and talk more but had to convene coaches about that sand.

The wind whipped the American flag flying at the entrance to the course.

Wells looked up at the pole. A stiff breeze licked at his face. The flag was almost straight out. He thought of his golfers and how they would handle the changing conditions.

“We’ll find out who the competitors are today,” he said.

And then he gunned the cart down the lot. He would be on the course again soon. It was only 4:30. There was more work to do.

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