It is 6:15 on a Tuesday morning and the clubhouse at Countryway Golf Club in Tampa is jammed with golfers. They are patiently waiting for the sun to rise, or at least the first glow of light to break up the darkness. Until then, there is work to do. Ric Wharton, 67, and Bill Flood, 70, are arranging the four-person teams for the scramble format. It is their job to make the teams as fair as possible. Each name is put on a poker chip and arranged by skill level. On this day, there will be seven groups and 25 players overall. It is everybody else's job to sip coffee and take aim at whoever is in sight.
"Hope you play better than you did last week, especially if you're in my group,'' Carl Mione, 77 and an original member of the group, quipped to a fellow player.
This is the Tuesday morning golf league. Members have been gathering before the sun since 1999, when Mione; Pat Donelly, 80; Larry Kotke, 80; and Bob Capo, 63, started the group. There are leagues like it throughout the area, diehards willing to suffer the early hour to be the first ones on the course.
Some days you win. Some days you lose. But every Tuesday is a chance to be together, hitting shots and trading barbs. Nobody is immune, as I found out this Tuesday morning.
“St. Pete Times, huh?'' somebody cracks from the back of the clubhouse. "They still printing?''
I am in Group 6. We'll see who's laughing in a couple of hours.
The sun doesn't officially rise for another six minutes, but the first tee shot is on its way. As most of the group mills around the putting green or loiters near the tee box, shots sail over the lake (or into it).
"Hey, a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then,'' someone shouts as Bob Kowalski, 70, knocks one on the green of the 95-yard first hole.
Countryway Golf Club is an executive course off W Waters Avenue. It has 11 par 3s and seven par 4s for a par 61. That's perfect for this group, whose average age is 65; the oldest players are in their 80s.
"A lot of these guys have been coming out here for years,'' said Ron Fandrick, 69, a retired air traffic controller from North Dakota who has been playing in the group for three years. "It's always a good time. It's a great group of guys.''
It is Group 6's turn to take the tee and the sun is peeking through the clouds. I'm teamed with Claude Shaver and Jim Armstrong. Shaver, 67, is a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman who has lived in Clearwater for 10 years. He owns a software company but always finds time to rise early and play on Tuesdays. Despite two knee replacement surgeries, Shaver still has game and is especially deadly with short irons.
"I used to be a 3 handicap back in the day when I was young and skinny,'' he said. "Now I'm happy just to be out playing.''
Armstrong, 68, is a retired civilian worker for the Navy in Clanton, Ala. He lives in Tampa and has been playing with the Tuesday morning group since 2003. A left-hander, he swings with all his might despite back problems.
"I used to play twice on Tuesdays,'' Armstrong said. "But then I had some back trouble and I couldn't do it anymore. It's kind of amazing I'm still playing with all the back problems. It hurts every time I swing.''
All three of us fail to hit the green on the first hole and we are forced to try a chip-in for birdie. Not even close. We're off to a bad start.
Pete Castelli, 66, lets out a roar as he chips in on the second hole for birdie. They are in the group ahead of us and are already 2 under.
"Knock it off,'' Shaver shouts.
We par the hole. Two holes in and already two shots down.
After four straight pars, Shaver is trying to put on a happy face.
"Okay, we've got to get it going,'' he said. "We pick up some birdies here, and there are a lot of birdies on the back nine.''
The fifth hole is a 308-yard par 4 with a dogleg right. We cut the fairway and have only a sand wedge to the green. Armstrong gets us close on the second shot, and we make the birdie putt. Off and running.
We finish the front nine with birdies on the eighth and ninth holes.
"I'm telling you, we can make a lot of birdies on the back side,'' Shaver said. "But it's going to take at least 8 or 9 under to even come close.''
The back nine starts with a bang. Shaver hits his pitching wedge on the 103-yard 10th hole just to the right of the flag. Then it starts trickling to the hole. It stops 1 inch from the cup.
"Almost made my seventh,'' Shaver said. "Thought that was going to fall in.''
It also happens to be the closest-to-the-pin hole for the back nine. Later, we find out the 11th hole was supposed to be the closest-to-the-pin hole but the stake was on the wrong hole. Too late now. Shaver sinks the marker right next to the cup. Good luck trying to beat that shot.
We follow with another par-3 birdie. In fact, we birdie the first five holes on the back nine. On the 15th hole we are 10 feet away but fail to make the birdie putt.
"Blew a chance there,'' Shaver said. "We needed that one.''
Yes, we did. With momentum clearly gone, we limp in with three more pars.
The round is over. Our group finishes at 8 under.
"That's not going to be good enough,'' Shaver said.
It is not. The winners shoot 11 under. But Shaver did get closest to the hole on the front and back nines.
The first group has been done for a half-hour. Pitchers of beer are already on the table, and the stories begin. The group was not impressed by Shaver's near hole-in-one.
"The only reason he didn't make it was because he didn't want to buy (drinks),'' Kowalski said with a laugh. "He's the cheapest guy out here.''
By 11 a.m., most of the group has dispersed. Another round in the books before lunch. They will gather again next Tuesday, just as sure as the sun will rise.
"It's a lot of fun,'' Shaver said. "We play a little golf and give each other (guff).
"If you can't take it, then you shouldn't be playing with this crew.''