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Playing with my hero
By John Wunder
It’s a perfect spring day in Southern California as I pass through the gate of Shady Canyon Golf Club. The super exclusive Tom Fazio design was opened in 2002 and has been the SoCal home of legends like Mark McGwire and yes Tiger Woods (Mr. Woods haslLocker No. 1 in the locker room).
The course is a master piece. Located in the back canyons of Irvine, Calif., Shady Canyon stretches out to 7112 yards and comes equipped with rolling hills, deep bunkers and some of the toughest greens in the state. Director of Golf Brian Gunson and his staff have done a phenomenal job of creating golfers paradise. It’s definitely a nice escape from reality.
As I make my way up to the club house it hits me I’m here to meet one of my heroes, former Major League pitcher Mark Langston. Growing up in Seattle, Mark Langston was the first super star the Mariners really had. With his nasty slider and movie star looks he represented the American League in four All Star games (’87, ’91, ’92, ’93), seven gold gloves and won the AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year award in 1984. In the days of Boggs, Mattingly and Gooden, Mark was something different. He was the cool surfer guy that played the guitar, threw 94 mph and struck out everyone. These days Langston resides in Orange County and is a proud father of two girls and husband to his wife of 25 years, Michelle. He spends his time working hard on what I came to find out is a very solid 4 handicap and is currently doing 50 home games for Angels Radio.
At the end of the practice tee I see what appears to be a 30-something mini tour pro whistling Titleists up into the top of the hill about 280 yards out. As I get closer it’s unmistakeable — it’s Langston. Not much of anything has changed since I was a kid. It’s uncanny how much resembles Brad Pitt in Moneyball. What most surprised me was just how good his golf swing was — athletic, fluid and he still has tremendous flexibility. After we exchange hellos and I peak in his bag (all Mizuno) and an old Scotty Cameron that looks to have been thru some battles.
We approach the first tee at Shady, an ominous long par 4 with fescue to the right and water all down the left side. After I flip one down the right side Mark hits a hard 3 wood down the right center. “Breakfast Ball?” he asks. “Nope,” I reply, and we were off. Although it was difficult to not ask him a billion questions about his baseball years, I stuck to golf.
The first few holes had Mark and I playing different courses. Although our handicaps are the same he played the first four holes in 2-under and I cruised around at one-over. This included Mark hitting a 280 yard driver off the deck to the par 5 second hole.
I also want to note that he plays with a Mizuno wedge with literally no grooves, yet he generates plenty of spin. Must be those MLB hands at work. I settled down by the back nine and Mark and I actually had a pretty nice battle coming in. It was actually surreal, competing against one of your idols. It hit me every once in a while during the round.
For a 52-year-old to hit the ball the way he does is impressive. He has been playing golf since his twenties but didn’t really see steady improvement until he retired. The strengths of his game are very similar to baseball, power. He smashes it and flushes his irons.
The pinnacle moment came on th 17th hole which is a tough 179-yard par 3 to a very slick green. You can’t hit it left there. The hill guarding the green makes an up-and-down impossible. I had the honor and hit a good 6 iron to the middle of the green which left me a 35 footer to a back left flag. Mark hammered a 6 iron that never left the flag. It pitched a half inch from the flag and with the pin so close to the back edge his ball rolled just off into the 2nd cut of rough.
I was away and proceeded to hit the greatest putt of my existence. The ball rolled perfectly to the cup, going in dead center. After the ball rolled in, Mark gave me a small grin and focused in on his shot. Chipping is the part of his game that he struggles with the most, and with my birdie giving me a one up advantage going into No. 18 I felt confident. Mark approached his ball, surveyed the 9-foot downhill chip he had, pulled the club back and plop! The ball hit the green softly, rolled 7 feet and without even watching it go in Mark sprints up to the 18th tee. It was the funniest reaction to a chip in I have ever seen. All I could do was laugh, grab his ball out of the cup and put the flag back in. Off toNo. 18 all tied.
As we put our tees in the ground on the 18th (another beast par four) it dawned on me that he plays right handed and in baseball he was unmistakeably a lefty. But what I came to know was that this is how Langston does it and always has — his own way. He’s a talent as an athlete and a human being. In a day of huge contracts and scandals he represents to me what any professional athlete should aspire to become. He is as grounded as they get and you would be hard pressed to find a more genuine person. As golf junkies we are very particular that things fit our eye or meet our expectations. I can say with all honesty that as meeting your childhood hero goes this exceeded mine. He’s a pros pro in every sense of the word.
P.S. I made 8 on the last hole … he made 3.