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TAKING A GENTLER APPROACH : Dave Fernandez Puts Wild Days Behind in Pursuit of Golf Career

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Golfers tend not to be the madmen of the world. They usually come from country club families where the pets wear sweaters and are named after a great-grandfather. If you see a tattoo on a golfer, you can bet a week’s pay it’s one of those lick-'em and stick-'em types that came in a box of Cracker Jack.

Golfers generally are not raised in an environment that encourages hellish behavior. Secondly, a golfer with dreams of making it big on the pro circuit cannot afford injuries.

Which is roughly what flashed through the mind of Dave Fernandez on a hot summer day three years ago during that brief moment between his departure from the seat of a fast-moving motorcycle and his arrival onto the hard-packed earth.

Fernandez, who led his Mission College team to the state junior college golf championship in 1984, landed on his right shoulder. A second after hearing many snapping and popping sounds, he heard himself screaming.

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His shoulder was in shambles. The impact had torn the bone of his upper arm--the humerus, and it most certainly wasn’t--3 1/2 inches out of its socket, doctors told him. In addition, the bone in the shoulder to which the biceps muscle and several tendons are attached was broken in several places.

The shoulder is crucial to a golf swing. It controls virtually the entire movement. Even slight shoulder injuries have sent many a golfer back to the racks of bland, ordinary pants.

A few days after the crash, Fernandez asked the doctors who had put him back together what the chances were of him continuing his golf career. They told him, in essence, that the odds were roughly the same as Elvis Presley resuming his singing career.

Fernandez laughed at them.

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“They told me that as a golfer, I couldn’t have possibly done anything worse to my body than what I had done to my shoulder,” said Fernandez, of Woodland Hills. “The told me to forget golf. Just to forget it. I told them, ‘No way.’ I was just 23 and I still felt invincible.”

The doctors told Fernandez that he might be able to begin stretching and exercising the shoulder in six months. Less than four months after they told him that, however, he was back on a golf course.

“I didn’t tell them,” he said. “I didn’t want anyone telling me again that I couldn’t do it. That’s all I had heard from them. For a few months it was pretty ridiculous. I’d swing the club somehow and hit the ball, and then walk down the fairway with my arm just dangling at my side. Sometimes I couldn’t even raise it.”

But within a few weeks of his return, Fernandez was shooting in the 70s again.

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“Somehow, I was still able to hit the ball and still able to score OK,” he said.

It was, he said, the first time he began to realize that he had a lot of natural ability. He never played golf as a child and only played on rare occasions as a student at Taft High. But after graduation from high school, he decided to learn to play the game.

Two years later he was helping Mission College to the state title.

“It always came so easy to me,” Fernandez said. “But I never really thought about it.”

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What he did think about as a youngster was surfing. He and his surfer buddies regarded golfers as a subtle blend of dead people and living--but poorly dressed--people.

“I was a surfer,” he said. “An everyday surfer. We did nothing else.”

Last year, in what he said was his first full year of playing pain-free golf since the motorcycle accident, he began doing nothing else but winning golf tournaments.

He captured the Oxnard City Championship, the Lompoc City Championship and a handful of events on the Golden State Tour early in the year, and then finished third in the Los Angeles City Championship.

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But in April of this year, the pain returned. Nerves damaged in the accident became inflamed again.

“At times, I couldn’t even hold a club,” said Fernandez, 26. “I tried to keep playing, but I just couldn’t.”

So he put the clubs away for a few months and allowed the nerves to re-heal. “It’s no fun when you’re not playing well, and I definitely wasn’t playing well,” he said. “The rest was good for me.”

He began playing daily a few weeks ago and now feels he is ready to make a return to the course. He knows he still has a lot of potential. And others know it, too. Earlier this week, he received an invitation to play in the prestigious Pacific Coast Amateur Championship. This year’s event will be held Aug. 1-4 at the famed Olympic Club in San Francisco.

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“I’ve been playing a lot and it’s promising,” said Fernandez, a construction worker. “I’m not real confident in my game yet, but I am real confident that I can work myself back to my best level.”

And he has vowed that, for the first time in his life, he will take golf seriously. He can, he thinks, carry it a long way.

“I have never put much into the game of golf,” he said. “Maybe I gave it 10% of my time and interest. I’ve never practiced the game very seriously until now. During the next year and a half or two years I’m going to find out just how good I can get. My goal is to make myself good enough to have a shot at turning professional. In my job, I often think about it when I’m covered with dirt and sweat every day.

“I’ve lived a hard and fast life, one not geared toward a golf career. It has hurt me a lot in any chance I might have had for a career in golf. But it has taught me a lot too.”

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An example?

“I bought a new motorcycle last year. I haven’t ever ridden it,” he said. “And I never will. It’s on its way out. I don’t have time or room for that kind of stuff anymore. It’s time to get serious about this game.”


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