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GOLF / STEVE ELLING : For Buttitta, Air Time Gives Way to Tee Time

Joe Buttitta had no idea what he had done or how he’d done it.

He simply signed up for a golf class in college, somebody handed him a left-handed seven-iron and he took a whack, using his best baseball swing.

The ball sailed high and true, into the blue yonder. He spent the next few weeks trying to duplicate the feat.

“I topped it, hit it fat, hooked it, sliced it,” Buttitta said. “I just wanted to hit it as good as I did that very first time.”

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Like every beginner who picked up an infernal club, he couldn’t. Buttitta didn’t know it at the time, but the hook had been set.

Three decades later, Buttitta is fast approaching a point where golf will move from avocation to vocation.

Buttitta, a television sportscaster with a considerable athletic background in the San Fernando Valley, now wants more than anything to become a PGA club professional.

“I’m deadly serious,” he said. “I know exactly what I want. Maybe for the first time.”

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Talk about shifting gears. Then again, Buttitta, who lives in Simi Valley, has changed directions successfully many times before. Not always by choice.

Buttitta was a triple-threat athlete as a kid in the Valley and later played basketball and baseball at Notre Dame High before enrolling at San Fernando Valley State, which became Cal State Northridge.

As a journalism graduate from Northridge, Buttitta became a media triple-threat too. He has worked at each of Los Angeles’ independent television stations, done extensive work in radio broadcasting and writes a weekly golf column for the L.A. Daily News.

He is the evening sports anchor at KADY-TV in Oxnard, a full-time job. He gives golf lessons each morning at Westlake Village Golf Course, a full-time job. Sleeping is not a full-time job.

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“I’m busy,” he said. “The days are long, but I really love (teaching).”

At 52, he is long in the tooth compared to most golfers attempting to become certified as PGA pros. He began the process in May by passing his skills test, which is based on his playing ability. He also is taking courses relating to the business and marketing end of the sport.

“I was a grandpa compared to most of the guys in my classes,” he said.

Buttitta, who is classified as a PGA apprentice, hopes to become certified over the next couple of years and land a position as the club pro at a nice, posh country club.

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When he first picked up that fateful seven-iron in a physical education class back around 1960, Buttitta thought golf was a “sissy sport.” Now, he thinks otherwise.

From frenetic, live television to genteel, gentleman golfer. Can it be so, Joe?

Buttitta, who has broadcast everything from UCLA to the Angels, has worked at more stations than he cares to remember. The media rat race can wear on a guy. So can the attendant company line.

“They don’t always give you a reason (for letting you go),” he said. “It was usually something like, ‘Joe, we’ve just decided to make a change.’ ”

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His first metamorphosis took place in the early 1960s, when Buttitta left a mark as an athlete at Northridge--primarily because he could rarely hit the mark. Buttitta, a left-handed outfielder and first baseman, was forced to pitch because of a dearth of arms.

He still holds the Matador record for most walks issued in a season with 76, set in 1962.

“I really wish somebody would break that,” he said. “Am I really the worst there ever was? I guess I was the Ryne Duren of my time.”

An assistant with the Matador baseball program at the time was Dick Enberg, who achieved a considerable measure of fame as a sportscaster in his own right. Enberg worked with the Matador pitchers.

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“I drove him into broadcasting,” Buttitta said.

Buttitta also drove batters crazy with his lack of control.

“There were a lot of times he had to go longer in the game than he should have,” said Bob Hiegert, the team’s starting shortstop. “We didn’t have much choice.

“I can say that there were quite a few balls that were hit very hard.”

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Hiegert, the athletic director at Northridge, grew up with Buttitta and both graduated from Notre Dame High in 1959. Hiegert later coached the Northridge baseball team. Buttitta served as an assistant in the mid-1970s with the Northridge . . . golf team.

Even then, he’d begun gravitating to the sport. Once Buttitta establishes himself as a club pro, he aspires to play in selected Senior PGA Tour events in the region.

“I’ve fallen head-over-heels in love with the game,” he said. “I wake up every morning and go to the golf course and I’m excited about it.

“It doesn’t get any better than that.”

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‘Tis still the season: While a handful of major national amateur events already have been staged, there are plenty more in the hopper. Qualifying tournaments for three of the top United States Golf Assn. events are scheduled this month at area courses.

* On Monday, qualifying events for the U.S. Amateur will be played at four sites in California, including Wood Ranch Country Club in Simi Valley.

The U.S. Amateur is Aug. 22-28 at the Tournament Players Course at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla.

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* On Aug. 19, a U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur qualifier will be played at El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana.

The Mid-Amateur tournament is scheduled for Sept. 10-15 at Tacoma Golf and Country Club in Tacoma, Wash. Mid-amateur events, which have grown increasingly popular over the past decade, are for players aged 25 or older.

* On Aug. 30, Spanish Hills Country Club in Camarillo will stage a U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier for men.

The championship will be played Sept. 17-22 at two sites in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota: Hazeltine National Golf Course in Chaska and Wayzata Country Club in Wayzata.

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They’re baaaack: Nick Price and Greg Norman, the two top-rated PGA professionals, again will play as a team in the Franklin Funds Shark Shootout at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks on Nov. 15-20.

The Shootout, hosted by Norman, features two-man teams playing under three different formats over 54 holes. Last fall, Norman and Price caught fire in the final round under the scramble format and shot a tournament-record 55, only to finish three shots behind Ray Floyd and Steve Elkington, who will return to defend their title.

Information: 800-924-8983.

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