Chris Zambri's round was off to a disappointing start, and it was getting uglier with each successive--and unsuccessful--swipe of the club. After playing the first five holes 3-over par, Zambri hit a tee shot on the sixth that caromed down a cart path, eventually landing in the deep rough, under a tree, near the lake of an adjoining hole.
Where the shot came to rest looked more like quagmire than posh country club. Even the ducks quacked menacingly, baring their bills. Like the old joke, Zambri was playing military golf: Left, left, left-right-left , otherwise known as the scenic route. He must have wondered whether to use a six-iron or a scythe.
Zambri, 16, wound up missing a four-foot putt on the hole, taking a bogey and blowing another chance to get well. But he rallied from his slow start in the match against Dos Pueblos and toured the remaining 12 holes at 1-under to finish with a 75.
"Like his brother and the other guys on the team, the kid's a great player," said Mike DiMaggio, an assistant pro at North Ranch Country Club in Westlake Village, where the team plays its home matches. "But he's different from the others. He's got more guts, knows how to go after it and how to get what he wants.
"The more you get to know the kid, the more you realize that he's a real battler. He's got a lot of heart."
In actuality, though, Zambri has less heart than your average high school junior: In December of 1985, to help correct a deteriorating congenital defect, Zambri had a section of his aortic valve removed.
Ten days after his chest was shaved, split and sewn by a surgeon at UCLA Medical Center, Zambri was back on the course, trying to shave a few strokes from his short game. Days later he was playing with the team. A year ago this month--just five months after major surgery--Zambri tied for second individually in the Marmonte League tournament. This year he won it with a 72-hole total of 287, including a 2-under-par 69 in the final round, his best competitive round ever.
The heck with saving bogey from the boondocks, holing out from Sahara-style sand traps, delivering a deft touch on delicate chip shots or even draining downhill 30-footers to salvage par. You want the ultimate bad lie? Try flat on your back in a hospital bed, with a few dozen stitches or tubes across your sternum.
Coming back in 10 days from open-heart surgery? Now there's a recovery. Shoot, and he barely missed a beat, so to speak.
"It really didn't surprise me that he came back so fast," said Mike Zambri, Chris' brother and a senior on the team. "He never really seemed to worry about it. He was on the putting greens practicing nine or 10 days afterward, and he rejoined the team after three weeks.
"That's just the way he is."
It was the way he was that was causing problems. While the family has a history of heart murmurs, Zambri was diagnosed to have sub-valvular aortic stenosis at the age of 9. While not considered life-threatening at the time, the ailment--which restricts blood flow in the heart--was serious enough that one doctor feared that an artificial valve might have to be installed.
"It was treated as pretty routine," said Mike Zambri, Chris' father. "But it's not like getting your tonsils out. The bottom line is that you don't want to be the one in a 100, you don't want to be the percentage that throws the equation off. As a parent, when doctors talk percentages, you want to hear, 'This is 99% safe,' but what we hear is that there's a 1% chance.
"You really don't want to hear about odds."
Nobody ever quoted a betting line about Zambri's term of recovery, but if they had, 100-to-1 would have seemed like a pretty safe wager against him playing so soon--or so well.
"I think we've got a very solid team again," Westlake Coach Lorin Maygren said. "We match up very well with the team we had last season. If we are any stronger this year, it's because our Nos. 1-though-4 players are better."
The Zambris have been front and center in Westlake's fab four. The two have been alternating at No. 2 and 3 for much of the season, often waging their own private competition. The Zambris finished 1-2 in the Marmonte tournament, with Chris edging Mike by two shots. Zambri and Westlake compete next in the Southern Section finals at Industry Hills on Tuesday.
Of the two, Chris is clearly the more volatile. One look at what's left of his golf bag gives a good visual example of the younger Zambri's competitiveness. The bottom of his blue and orange team bag--the apparent target of a few good belts with an offending club--is held together with electrician's tape.
"And these are new bags," teased teammate John Darin.
The younger Zambri prefers to view it as a tempered temper, the product of a desire--if not a need--to win. And it's easy to see Zambri's will to win is part and parcel of his will to live.