Ortega bolsters NBCC

The Jones Cup, with its two-best-ball format, encourages players to go for broke.

But Rich Ortega is living proof that success in golf comes to those who make their own breaks.

Orgeta, recently named a Professional Golf Assn. professional, will be one of five players to represent Newport Beach Country Club in the 12th annual Jones Cup.

The tournament that pits two pros, the men's champion, women's champion and men's senior champion from the four Newport-Mesa area private clubs against themselves, tees off Tuesday at 1 p.m. at Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach.

It's the third Jones Cup for Ortega, who will team with head pro Paul Hahn, men's champion Jeff Bloom, first-time women's champion Isako Takada and senior champion Bob Kraft.

Hahn has played in all 11 previous Jones Cup events, the first four of which featured two-person teams. Kraft was Hahn's partner in the first Jones Cup in 2000.

Newport Beach Country Club won its lone Jones Cup title in 2004, when the format expanded to four-person teams.

NBCC came close to victory in 2008, as Ortega's 12-foot birdie putt on the par-five No. 18 helped force a three-team playoff eventually won by Big Canyon, which has six Jones Cup crowns to hold bragging rights over two-time-defending champion Mesa Verde (four titles).

Ortega said the playoff-clinching putt is among his top five highlights in golf. And that is saying something for a guy who has worked his way to assistant pro at NBCC after beginning there in 1995 by working in the bag room.

"There's a funny story there, too," said Ortega, who won an 18-hole qualifier against the other assistant pros to earn his Jones Cup berth. "A good friend of mine, Eric Andrade, was caddying for me that day. And, walking up the 18th hole, after I hit my second shot, there was a gallery looking on of about 100 people, including all three of the other teams. He looks at me and said, 'Are you nervous?' I said 'No,' and he said, 'I am,' We had a good laugh and I chipped up on the green and then faced a 12-foot put to get us into the playoff.

"Eric then turns to me and says, 'You know there are defining moments in a man's life and I think this is one of them. I think you need to make this putt.' I did make it and it was a defining moment in front of our membership and other teams. And it's still our little inside joke when we're playing golf together. We'll say 'This is another defining moment.' "

Ortega's ability to make a career in golf was less clearly defined.

"I got a passion for the game after high school," said Ortega, 42, a former football player at Huntington Beach High who landed the bag-room job at age 26 after a friend working in the NBCC pro shop at the time informed him of the opening. "Almost immediately, I was bit by the golf bug. I knew I wanted to make this a career."

In a few years, Ortega said he became an assistant in the pro shop, and in early 2009, began the PGA program.

"In essence, it's getting your degree in golf," he said. "It's learning everything the game encompasses, from the rules, to teaching, to the day-to-day operations of running a golf course."

Ortega said he is lucky to have spent his whole career at one facility and he is proud to be associated with NBCC, which among other things, plays host each spring to the Toshiba Classic, one of the top events on the Champions Tour.

He said he particularly enjoys teaching.

"Bringing people into the game is great," He said. "Just seeing someone who never attempted the game get the ball airborne is satisfying. Then there is their first par, their first birdie and their career round. It's a heck of a feeling to help someone achieve those things. We share in their excitement. It's like being a part of a team and it's very fulfilling."

Ortega said he can empathize with a beginner, because he recalls all too well his initial period of difficulty with the game.

"I struggled just like everybody else," he said. "It's frustration and it's passion. I couldn't understand why I could not put the ball where I wanted to. So, I became infatuated with learning the game. I spent every day practicing and when I'd have some spare change, I'd run to the driving range to practice."

He still works on his game when he can, though his duties, as well as time with his wife and 7-year-old daughter Olivia, sometimes make it tough to get out on the course.

"I haven't played a round of golf now in three or four weeks," Ortega said. "I try to hit a small bucket of balls between shifts, and lessons and being a family man. I try to keep my game sharp. We all have pride and we don't want to embarrass ourselves."

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