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Murietan Don Thames competed in the U.S. Golf Association's Senior Amateur Championship near Orlando, FL., advancing to Wednesday's quarterfinals.  He shares his diary with Rancho Murieta.

Bugs, eyeballs and Lou Holtz

Lake Nona, FL
Wednesday, Sept. 29

Lake Nona is a classy, private enclave that is home to wealthy golf enthusiasts and several touring golf professionals from all over the world. It would be my kind of place, to be sure, except for the fact that I do not qualify for either aforementioned example. However, since I did qualify for the USGA Senior Amateur, I am thrilled to be here.

After a gracious welcoming by USGA staff, I was off to practice my amateur trade in a world-class facility. Before me was a monstrous practice putting green, several chipping and pitching areas equipped with flawless turf and a driving range filled with TaylorMade balls and perfect lies.

The bugs were of immediate concern due to their sheer numbers. According to one friendly member, “The hatch just occurred a week ago.” They were called “Love Bugs” and they invaded every place that a golfer would customarily call sacred. They swarmed your head. They littered the seat of the golf cart. They buzzed and landed on the ball. They even tried to fly into your mouth and nostrils. They earned their loving name because they are in a constant state of togetherness, which I suppose is their way of mating. The only apparent silver lining to their existence is that they don’t bite.

I was happy to discover that Lake Nona Golf and Country Club eyeballs well for me. I mean that the course does not curve or wander in a direction dissimilar to my ball flight. The landing areas from the tee are fairly generous and it does not appear visually intimidating. The Tom Fazio design seems to suit my shape better than Pete Dye designs. Pete is too Dye-abolical.

Before teeing off, the starter informed me that I might encounter some members who measure their round not by par, but rather by speed of play. Five holes in, I noticed four players in four separate carts gaining on us fast. As we let them through I recognized one of the speedsters as Lou Holtz of football coaching fame. I introduced myself and was correct in thinking that he would be a nice guy. I also knew that he is an authority on competition, sports psychology and motivation. So I asked him for a tip for the week and he told me this. “Remember why you came here, and that is to win. Remind yourself of that on every hole. Play every hole like a par three. Cut it up and decide how you want to approach the green. It is better to be 175 from the fairway than 150 from the trees.“

He then reached into his wallet and pulled out his card and told me to call him for any reason. I thanked him for his time and the tip and said I hoped to see him again this week. He rode away telling me that “We just hired a new greenskeeper and the course is the best it has been in years. Remember that the 12th green slopes left but breaks right. It’s the grain.


On to match play, where I will play my own game

Lake Nona, FL
Sunday, Oct. 3

Update: Don Thames' one-under weekend total left him in a tie for fourth place and easily qualified him for this week's match play.  Gary Ramsden had a rough second round and missed the cut at 13 over par.

At this writing, half of the field has completed two rounds in the qualifying for match play. I came in with a score of 143, which currently sits atop the leader board. I do not feel that this score will hold up for medalist honors, but I am assured of qualifying for match play. Gary went out in 40 in the afternoon and seems to be on the bubble. I think he will need to shoot even or one over on his final nine to get in. My fingers are crossed for him. Other Norcal guys who made match play are Jim Knoll, Dan Bieber and most likely Jeff Burda.

Carole did an outstanding job with yardages and green reading. She was sophisticated enough to help me plan my approach shots by reading the slope and grain from the fairway. This was a great edge for me to have such a professional grade caddy.


For a time, Don Thames was tied for the lead in the clubhouse.  (Carole Thames photo)

The golf course is very fair and allows players to hit driver on most holes. There are two short par fours and only one of them requires less than a driver. Two of the par fours measure 450 and 464 yards respectively. The greens are Bermuda and require a bit of imagination to read. As Californians we see greens like these only when on vacation in the South or Hawaii. The speed of the greens are 11 to 11.5 on the stimp and are not the fastest ever but require great touch when going up and into the grain when the hole is cut over the slope and then down grain. We just don’t get putts like that in California, so I am trying to learn this quickly.

The players' dinner on Friday night was interesting, as we had Gio Valiante as the keynote speaker. Gio has a PhD and is a sports psychologist for several tour players. Gio calls his players every Monday after tour events and asks them what they learned. He believes that over time, if they can learn one or two things per week that they will improve. He also asks them to play for a purpose and to find gratitude. He thinks that if they can actively work against entitlement, which is the anti-performance, that his players can be free and play better golf.

So far this week my key has been consistent iron play and solid putting. I came here needing a new grip on the old putter but did not do so for one reason or another. While practice putting on Friday afternoon I met a player from Tennessee who had one of those big fat grips on his putter. I tried it and liked it. The next thing I knew, Carole was driving across town to buy one. The golf pro at Lake Nona slipped it on and I loved it immediately. It seems to let me grip the putter lightly and just let the thing swing. It seems to produce good feel and results.

So now that the first part of the mission has been accomplished, I will go into match play. Oftentimes, the tendency for me is to play the man and not the course. I will be trying to temper that a bit and focus on playing my own game. From here on, luck of the draw and timing are important. If I draw a guy who shoots 68, then that is the day I better shoot 67 or go home. Alternatively, the guy could shoot 77 and I could cruise to a win. I am going to strive to be consistent and play my best, it is that simple.

For those interested, you may visit usga.org to follow the tournament. Carole and I would like to thank all who have supported us and followed this with interest.

Lake Nona, FL
Monday, Oct. 4

I played a tough competitor today and was fortunate to win one-up on the last hole.  Tom Doughty hails from Amarillo, Texas, speaks with a drawl and plays like the devil.  The match was a see-saw affair throughout.  Doughty gained a two-up lead after draining a 20-foot putt for birdie on the 10th hole as I stood there with my mouth open and my hopes narrowing.  I began to think that this guy was not going to make a mistake.  Then I had my chance.  He three-putted a slick down-grain downhill putt on hole number 11 to open the door.

After evening the match on 13 with a par, I made birdie on 15 to go one up.  In my mind, I believe that pars to close would win the match.  Doughty had other ideas.  On the 461-yard 16th, my opponent struck a hybrid club to within four feet for the birdie and win.  Now we were even going into the par-three 17.  He knocked it to 30 and I stuck a seven iron to 10 feet.  We pushed, as my putt did not cooperate.

Don Thames

The match carried to the 18th hole, but Don Thames bested his opponent and the course Monday.

Lake Nona sits to the left of the 17th fairway and is a beautiful scene for the non-golfer.  For the player with hooking tendencies, it is a magnet for balls.  Doughty pull-hooked his three wood into the lake and I stood on the tee with one intention.  Keep it dry.  I found the fairway and remained 147 yards from the hole.  Meanwhile Doughty dropped and drilled his approach to 16 feet for par.  This guy would not let up.  I punched an eight iron to 17 feet for birdie.

All I was trying to do was lag the putt down there and make par, forcing Doughty to make his.  I had a slick downhill down-grade putt and let it get away to three feet past.  Doughty lipped his par putt out and I nervously made the three-footer for the win.

Tomorrow I will be playing my old college teammate and All-American Jim Knoll.  Jim and I are best of friends and are both incredulous that we have to face one another.  We talked about it after the round and feel the same way about the situation.  We will both be trying to win but will be happy with the result regardless of the outcome.  Of course, we will both be trying and hoping to win but will root for the rest of the tournament.

Lake Nona, FL
Wednesday, Oct. 6

In Tuesday's round two, I faced my old buddy and San Jose State teammate Jim Knoll.  Mark Lye and Jim Knoll were two of the All-Americans on our nationally ranked team.  Jim played the PGA tour for three years in the '70s and has played in four U.S. Opens.  It was not the pairing I would have hoped for, but the match seemed more like a Sunday Nassau at the club versus a match in the National Amateur.  We both agreed beforehand that we would play our best and be happy regardless of the outcome.  This time I came out on top, 4-3.  I made five birdies on the day and Jim did not play his best.  As usual, Jim was a complete gentleman and wished me the best for the balance of the tournament.

In round three I played Dave Williamson from northern Indiana.  Dave jumped out to an early lead and held the lead most of the match.  I was two down after nine as Williamson did not seem like he would make a mistake.  After narrowing his lead to one, I birdied the par five 15th to even the match.  When I blew an easy up and in on the 464-yard par four 16th hole, I was beginning to feel a good bit of pressure.  I could not make a putt or capitalize on the opportunities.  After halves on the last two holes with pars, we advanced to the first tee for a playoff.  Both of us drove to the fairway and had 110 yards downwind to a hole location perched on a shelf back right.  Dave stroked a pure looking wedge right on line, landing the ball one foot from the ledge and spun it back to 30 feet below the hole.  I placed my shot pin high left to 20 feet.  As Californians we play bent or poa greens and seldom have to read grain.  The putt Williamson faced was a difficult uphill putt which then levels off and immediately slopes downhill and down grain.  He left his lag six feet short.  I lagged for the concession and Williamson missed wide right.  The marathon day was over and I had survived to play in the quarterfinals.

In the medal round, Carole caddied and did an expert job on reading the putts and giving me accurate yardages.  She had charted the golf course and had a book of course knowledge that would rival the information a tour caddy would provide.  She also caddied in round one because it was only an 18-hole day. 

Don Thames

Senior Amateur Championship quarterfinalist, hitting balls. (Carole Thames)

However, round two and three were played on the same day, so I decided to ride.  Under USGA rules, the caddy must walk.  Therefore, Carole had to run in order to keep up with two players in two carts.  So we devised a strategy.  She would give me hole locations and best approach angles after I would hit my tee shot.  Then she would run down the fairway in her caddy bib and step off the yardage on her way.  Needless to say, Carole was working hard in the 87-degree heat and humidity.  Then she would run to the green and help me read the putt.  So when we approached the 18 tee in our second match of the day she was obviously flushed.  “You better birdie this hole, dude” she said when the match was tied.  Unfortunately, I could not follow her request, but she was happy when we won the first hole of the playoff.  She cried.  Later in the day we counted 10 blisters on her feet and a sore knee.

The beer tasted good after the two wins, and after a quick shower we returned to Lake Nona for the sweet 16 party hosted by the USGA.  Many of the who's who in Senior Golf were there.  I had previously met Vinny Giles, who is the defending champion, Walker Cupper, former U.S. Am Champ in 1975 or so.  Vinny is one of the most celebrated amateurs in U.S. golf history.  At the dinner I asked Vinny for a tip that I could use for the rest of the tournament.  In a slow, smiling Southern drawl, Giles said, “Son, just play your ass off.  I mean it.  You are playing well.  Keep up your confidence and keep doing what you’ve been doing.  Never mind all that is going on, just play good.”

Lou Holtz was the keynote speaker at the dinner, and as usual he delivered some pearls of wisdom and humor.  While playing especially bad with Arnold Palmer in a pro-am, Lou told Arnie that “I have never played that bad.”  To which Arnie replied, “Oh, you have played before, have you?”  Holtz believes in four things in this life of ours.  One, have something to do.  Two, have someone to love.  Three, have something to hope for.  Four, have someone to believe in.   Lou’s long time golfing goal in life is to shoot his age.  Something even more difficult is to shoot his IQ, “Which is lower than my age.”

After all that, Carole told me that I was snoring within two minutes of contacting the pillow.  The next morning we arose at 6 a.m. to do it all over again.  Hopes were high, as I was slated to face Chip Lutz from Reading, PA, who is a member at Pine Valley.  Chip, at age 55, has already won several national senior amateur tournaments and finished second in the British Senior Amateur earlier this year.  I knew I was in for a tough match.  We had tied at 143 in the qualifying.  Chip was a nice guy and a terrific player.

I was happy to discover that by virtue of reaching the quarters I am exempt from qualifying for the tournament next year.  The event will be held at Vinny Giles' home club in Virginia next year.  I also knew that the two finalists gain automatic berths into the Senior U.S. Open.

Chip played a solid round of golf and I did not.  It was the worst I had played since arriving in Lake Nona.  Too bad I had to have a round like that at the wrong time.  But, to his credit, Lutz played well and deserved to win.  I felt the sting of match-play defeat.  Only one person wins in match play and when you lose a match it is so terminal.  The finality of it makes you feel like a loser.  Fortunately, perspective prevails and I will look at this experience as a positive one.  I can only hope that I will have learned something to put in the quiver.  Maybe next time I will have one more arrow.

Another Nor Cal player, Jeff Burda from Modesto, gave it a great run and advanced to the semifinals.  Unfortunately, Jeff fell to Paul Simson in the afternoon.

Carole and I would like to thank all of our friends in Rancho Murieta for their best wishes and support. The interest, the texts, the calls and all of the encouragement were overwhelming.  We had such a good time and will bring back many great memories that we are grateful to have been able to share.  Thank you all so much.  Lake Nona is great, but Rancho Murieta is like no other.

Candice Koropp's picture
Joined: 02/12/2008
Posts: 40
Post rating: 51

Updates are fun to read

I am keeping up with your commentary and I am rooting for you to win.

RM.com's picture
Joined: 06/19/2007
Posts: 27726
Post rating: 1387

Welcome home, Don

Thames banner

The club entrance, at Murieta Parkway and Alameda Drive, sports a welcome-home banner honoring Don Thames.

Gillian M Smith's picture
Joined: 08/12/2007
Posts: 61
Post rating: 36

    Well done to BOTH Mr.



Well done to BOTH Mr. Thames and Mr. Ramsden I say.  Having the chance to play like they both did is quite a feat in itself.  May you both continue to do well in next years' event. This from someone who knows so little about golf, but much about fairness.,


Gillian M Smith


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